The excitement built in my chest as the school bus slowly navigated the bumpy dirt road littered with potholes. It felt surreal to be back on the road to Guanin. Although I’d been in La Piedra two years earlier the scenes outside the bus window still shocked me. Children playing barefoot, dilapidated shacks with no running water and dirt floors, stray dogs with visible ribs, and the few humble colmados on the roadside that served as the communities only access to food not grown on their land. Despite my culture shock, I was incredibly excited to return to Guanin. I fell in love with Guanin on the UConn Bridge to Guanin Alternative Winter Break my senior year. When I left the Dominican Republic after that first trip I promised myself that I would return once I’d graduated and gained experience as a nurse. Now two years after my first trip my friend Emily and I were riding the yellow school bus towards Guanin ready to serve the community. Upon arriving to Guanin we were met with warmth and excitement by the staff and immediately made to feel right at home. Madelyn and Rosa helped us settle into our room and we all laughed at our half Spanish, half charades communication. The first night in Guanin I felt totally relaxed in my bunk bed enjoying the darkness and silence that I never get in my New Haven apartment.
Emily and I spent the week riding on motorcycles or walking to homes in the community with Dr Raisa. We checked blood pressures, completed check ups on kids, cleaned wounds, visited mothers and their newborns, and passed out medications. Being welcomed into people’s homes as nurses gave us unique insight into the daily struggles faced by the people of La Piedra. It’s difficult to come up with the right word for the crippling effects of poverty in the community, as struggle doesn’t do it justice. For example, we visited a new mother and baby who were living in a house filled with construction rubble and dust. The baby’s sleeper was the only furniture in the home with no electricity or running water. While speaking with the mother my eyes and nose filled with the dust kicking up in the house. On another home visit we saw a family consisting of three teenage girls and their multiple toddlers and babies. They lived in one tin house. The roof had holes and there were no windows. Unsurprisingly a lot of the children were suffering with gripe which even in a larger well-ventilated house could spread easily from person to person. I held one of the babies in the family and noticed the diaper was full of urine. I imagined that this wasn’t due to lack of care for the child but perhaps because the family was unable to afford diapers. The most devastating part of our travels is that these situations were not stand out occurrences in the community. Every household we entered lacked basic comforts and the people wanted for basic healthcare. Despite their poverty and trauma the community exuded hopefulness, a sense of duty to their gente, and warmth.
The people of La Piedra want for basic health care, education, jobs, and all the other things I take for granted in my life but they do not want for spirit, generosity, kindness, love, or community. Everytime we entered someone’s house to care for them we were met with smiles, hugs, thanks, and always they would pull up three plastic chairs for us to sit in. Without exceptions we would have to insist that the patient take a seat and not us. One afternoon we visited an elderly man with diabetic foot ulcers. His house was filled with plastic bottles he used for selling gasoline as well as chips and candy that he sold at local schools. His home had a dirt floor, no stove, no running water, no indoor bathroom, one naked light bulb in the front room, and there was a constellation of holes in his tin roof. His living conditions made keeping his ulcers clean and infection free very difficult. Dr Raisa, Emily, and I removed his dirty bandages, cleaned his ulcers, and finally wrapped his feet in clean dressings. When we were leaving he insisted that we take some of the candy as a thank you. Selling candy was his livelihood and he was willing to give some away for free out of gratitude and appreciation for basic healthcare. Little gestures such as this highlight the strength and dignity of the people who make up the deserving community of La Piedra.
In the United States it’s not uncommon for nurses to be verbally abused and even physically assaulted by patients. However in La Piedra the patients were thankful, gracious, and full of kindness. Their appreciation and warmth speaks to some of the most wonderful aspects of Dominican culture but it’s also a symptom of lacking access to quality healthcare. Guanin serves the community and works tirelessly to bridge the gap in the health disparity seen between wealthier Dominicans and the people in La Piedra. My friend Emily and I considered ourselves privileged to have been welcomed to Guanin with open arms and allowed to serve the community for a week