The farthest I’ve ever traveled to visit a home

Parking can prove rough in Panama.

Forget the congested spaces crammed into the streets of the Panama City’s urban jungle. The 1.5 million-plus municipality has more than its fair share of tight spots for transportation, but they pale in comparison to a short drive into the countryside … where convenient parking is often non-existent.

My graduate school group of eight students (plus an Elon undergraduate serving as our translator) got a full taste of both extremes during our first day in the country. We’ve come for 8 days to get footage and information on those suffering from a rare genetic disease that makes bones as brittle as glass. The goal is to help The Crystal Children Foundation raise awareness of this disease and the gaping lack of treatment options available for those in Panama that live under the threat of a bone fracture at every moment.

We came in knowing the medical plight would prove severe, with patients having heartbreaking stories to tell. What blew us all away on that first day was the sheer effort it takes many just to reach the city to receive the most basic of medical care. The journey can take hours, with multiple modes of transportation, just to traverse 50 or so miles.

Case in point was the first subject we met, a young woman named Zuleika Goday who heads into the city regularly for treatment of her baby Yazmin. We interviewed her at the foundation’s office in the morning, than took what we thought would be a moderate drive to her home on the outskirts of the city. As we drove away from the high rises and modern amenities of the municipality, the road and the degree of development alongside it scaled back dramatically. Within the hour there was only rural countryside in all directions. We kept driving the ever narrowing road waiting for the parking space to arrive.

It came into view eventually. But there was still a river, a 3-mile dirt road and a 2-mile hike separating Zuleika and Yazmin from their house.

It proved perhaps the longest I’ve ever traveled to reach a home, but one filled with exhilaration. After crossing the river in an old motorized canoe, we watched in disbelief as a covered pick-up truck came down the road and the driver motioned for us to pile in. At the jerky moment of take-off, the atmosphere filled with sheer giddiness. In a few hours we would be sweating and sunburned on the return trip and ready for a break. But at this second, there was only childlike laughter and wonder on repeat as we entered a jungle we never expected to see once on this trip, let alone the first day.

The scenery of the hike looked like something out of the TV show Lost: unchecked vegetation in every direction,  a curving landscape of hills, and absolute quiet all around. Eventually we reached the thatched hut Zuleika called home, starting an interview where we learned of her weekly struggle to keep the Yazmin’s bones in place with treatment hours away. The thing is, she’s not the only one in such remote conditions facing such a journey for necessary medical care. There are many others, some of whom we have met these last few days, who live in isolated, poverty-stricken regions where getting help, even on the rare occasions when it’s available, requires a journey. To truly have their major bone fractures fixed, a trip to a U.S. hospital is required in order to find the right medical expertise.

What can we do by sharing in this experience? Hopefully find a way to let the greater Panamanian and American public know of the issue, building momentum and funds for a clinic in the country. It will take just the right mix of multimedia storytelling and web-based graphics calling people to action. I hope we can pull it off, but I know we’ll have all the footage and the experience necessary to make it happen, and I couldn’t ask for a more talented and engaging group of students to work with on the project.

By car we’re seeing a new world. But it’s after we park that the real work, and the real eye-opening experience, comes into focus.

    • Leighanne
    • January 9th, 2010

    Thanks Brook. I look forward to future installments. What an experience for you all.

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