The potholes bounced the bus up and down as we drove along a dirt road to the tiny agrarian town of Caledonia. The remote village is approximately 150 miles south of Cancun in the proud country of Belize. It is a sugar cane village and nearly everyone in town is connected to this vital crop. Once each year, a doctor will come with volunteers and run the town health clinic. It’s a small, clean building with six rooms, one devoted to a poorly stocked pharmacy and the others to waiting and exam rooms. I was in Belize with a group learning about Mayan and wilderness medicine and I was eager to put my new medical knowledge to the test. The group of eleven kids and I were nervous about operating the clinic by ourselves; however, we knew that we could handle the task. For two and a half weeks we had been studying together and performing scenarios to earn our Wilderness First Responder certification.
The night before we ran the clinic, we walked around Caledonia, going from one colorful house to the next, telling people that the clinic was open and welcoming them to come see the doctor. Everyone seemed delighted to hear about the clinic, so much so that we were given dinner at many of the houses. I was struck by their generosity because they barely make enough money for themselves, but do not hesitate to offer food to total strangers. Late that night, after planning for the next day and reviewing our jobs, I climbed into bed but could barely sleep from excitement.
The next morning I woke up with butterflies in my stomach, having no idea what to expect. As I walked across the village to the clinic, more and more people poured out of their homes and onto the unpaved street. By the time I got to the building, I was surrounded by kids wrestling in the dirt, babies crying from the heat, and old women peacefully waiting in the shade.
To begin the day, I was assigned to work in the pharmacy and instantly the prescriptions started coming in. Running back and forth from the doctor’s office to the pharmacy and bringing medicines to the patients was not an easy job. The most common sickness in the village was the flu, but we saw a number of people with cancer, diabetes, and infections. The medicine and vitamins went fast and soon we were unable to fill many of the doctor’s prescriptions. It made me appreciate how lucky I am to have access to such good care and medicine in the U.S.
It was my turn to sit in the exam room and observe the doctor care for patients. Many patients came through the office but one sticks out in my memory. She was a Garifuna woman in a vibrant flower patterned dress with two little kids hugging her knees. The three had walked four miles from Corozal, a small town to the west. She wanted to do a pregnancy test and her baby daughter had the flu. When I brought back the positive pregnancy test she was so happy that she swept me up in a huge hug. Her embrace surprised me, but it felt great to bring someone that much joy. We started talking about the Garifuna culture, and the next thing I knew, she was teaching our entire group her native dance and cultural drum beats. All twelve of us were rotating our hips and swinging our arms to the Punta dance in no time.
After a long day of work we assembled in the town center to meet with some of the village leaders. They were thankful for our help and wanted us to come back and visit. Although sadly, it was time to leave the little town of Caledonia, I was content. I think that I want to study medicine. I also want to learn more about Belize and other parts of Central America. That evening I realized that I may not be back to Caledonia anytime soon. However, connecting to people through serving them, sharing a meal with them, and even taking an impromptu dance lesson are vivid memories. I knew I could never forget the incredible sensation of helping complete strangers and being truly appreciated.