A Winning Team


A Winning Team

Had life proceeded on the course I envisioned a few short years ago I would have been in the press box at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands on Sept. 27 covering Syracuse-Notre Dame football. Instead, I was filling medical prescriptions in a makeshift pharmacy and counseling young Jamaican mothers on the possible side effects of giving their children ferrous sulfate (may cause hard do-do or green do-do, don’t take with milk).

How about that for a detour? In retrospect, the 10-day adventure I experienced as a member of the 2014 Issa Trust Foundation medical initiative to Jamaica surpassed all the thrills I experienced during a four-decade career as a sports journalist.The group of about 40 who gathered from different parts of the country bonded seemingly instantly into a cohesive team that would have been the envy of any sports franchise. Egos were absent, and teamwork was paramount from start to finish. In short, it was a life-changing 10 days in which the maxim “it is more blessed to give than receive” came to life in rural northeast Jamaica.

It was especially true for me because, unlike probably every other member of the team, I had no calling to serve and certainly no practical experience when it came to medical care other than holding one of my own children down while my wife poured yucky-tasting antibiotics down their throats as toddlers. For months I encouraged my wife, Donna, to follow her heart and God’s call and accept the invitation to join the team while steadfastly refusing to tag along as extra baggage. My “gifts” were reporting and writing, my dream since childhood.

Then two events changed my life and priorities dramatically. First, my beloved profession basically ceased to exist, as in-depth newspaper stories (and apparently readers of them) were deemed no longer pertinent and a seismic shift from objective journalism to blogging and tweeting anything and everything 24-7 occurred almost overnight. I opted to accept a severance package in 2012 rather than continue down that road. At 58, my professional life and passion vanished. My integrity may have been intact, but I descended into a deep depression nonetheless.

Then, when I was about at rock bottom emotionally despite reinventing myself as a nationally certified pharmacy technician and doing some freelance writing on the side, Donna accepted the chance to join the mission team.

I’m still not sure what changed my heart – but once I decided to join, I never looked back. I was getting the opportunity to return to a country I had grown to love as a vacationer and give its children the healthcare I had taken for granted when raising my own kids.

And that is exactly what every member of the team did, as we saw nearly 900 Jamaican youngsters in five days of clinics on the northeast portion of the island. I am thankful I decided to keep a journal, because from the moment we touched down in Montego Bay on the afternoon of Sept. 23 to the moment we lifted off on the afternoon of Oct. 2 it was a blur of frenetic activity.

The journal provides only a narrow perspective, impressions from just one of the participants, a newbie who never witnessed the massive logistical effort expended in setting up the annual initiative, never accompanied some team members who split off from the main group every day to work at a local hospital and never even stepped into an exam area to watch the talented docs at work. But I was on the front lines nonetheless, in the midst of our portable lab and pharmacy, our triage and data-entry nurses and eye docs, our registration area and tooth-painting (fluoride) station and, most importantly, the hundreds of Jamaican children and their relatives who crowded elbow to elbow into our clinics displaying bright smiles and good manners despite long waits during “crush” periods. Here are my highlights:

  • Virtually every team member greeted us with open arms and treated us as if we had been part of the family from the start instead of first-timers. We arrived midafternoon knowing not a single soul on the team, but by the time we went to bed that night we felt as if we belonged.
  • There was no “small job” on the team. Every role—from pediatric medical expert to support staff loading and unloading the buses with supplies, setting up fans, registering patients, passing out toys and toothbrushes and weighing and measuring children —was treated with equal importance and appreciation. I have never been around such a bunch of selfless, caring individuals.
  • The organization amid the mayhem associated with seeing sometimes 60 children an hour formed the foundation of our effectiveness. During a typical clinic day our two buses would be greeted by a crowd of children and relatives waiting. Within an hour, a small building such as a church would be transformed into a medical clinic with all the functioning parts (albeit rudimentary) of a modern U.S. urgent care facility. The system worked like this: Children were registered and given a number as well as a small goodie backpack bag with toy, toothbrush, toothpaste and laundry detergent. They next went to weights and measures (ages 3 and under also got head circumference recorded in addition to heights and weights) before proceeding to triage (and lab if necessary) and to a data-entry nurse. They then waited for their numbers to be called for assignment to a doctor. Then it was to the pharmacy if needed to have prescriptions filled and then to an eye doc for an exam and fitting for glasses if required (we had 2,000 pair). Finally, they visited the tooth station where teeth were “painted” with fluoride.
  • As a former journalist I am well-schooled in the art of observation, and I had several opportunities to pause during my various duties (loading and unloading, handing out bags, doing weights and measures and working with the pharmacists) and to look around. The images of my fellow team members working so tirelessly and selflessly amid the heat and intense activity often overwhelmed me with emotion and filled me with gratitude that I was able to play a small part in the process.
  • I was struck by how beautiful these children are, so well-groomed and polished in their school uniforms and so well-behaved as they waited patiently to move from one station to the next. The big eyes and bright smiles made it hard to imagine at times the struggles they face to attain decent health care. Hugs, high-fives and plopping kids in laps for photos were irresistible treats for team members.

As a newbie, I had my moments. Every now and then I’d call a child “buddy,” a word of affection in the States but not Jamaica. And when a doc during our first clinic approached me and asked for “urinalysis,” meaning a urinalysis kit, I instead gave her “my analysis,” opining that I thought things were running quite smoothly.

Yet, those were minor bumps during what turned out to be 10 of the best days of my life. I thought nothing could surpass the getaway adventure I experienced during my first trip to Jamaica, a 2008 long overdue “honeymoon” (29 years after our marriage) at Couples Negril, but I was wrong. This one was so much better because it was so much bigger than me. It was summed up in a note left on our pillow by our housekeeper one night after we returned from a clinic. It stated simply: “Thank you for all you have been doing for our children.”

-by Dave Rahme