Tuesday, June 16, 2009


About a month ago, I watched two open-heart surgeries. One was performed on a five-year-old boy and another on a three-month-old baby girl, and there I was, all scrubbed up and taking pictures in the operating room. One of the couples in my training group left a training week a day early to go back to their site to attend a cardiology event and was able to meet with a group of pediatric cardiologists from the States working with the Jamaica Children’s Heart Foundation. They told the couple about the work they were planning on doing in Kingston and the couple, having heard about my EMT and clinical work, advised them to contact me and see if I could help out for the week. The first day I spent at the Red Cross in town helping out where I could during a clinic the team ran for a down town orphanage. Most of my morning was spent holding babies and being teased for how uncomfortable I looked. I met with the head of the Kingston/St. Andrews branch and told her of my desire to do more clinic volunteering and collaboration with the Red Cross. If I only knew then how beneficial that initial meeting and conversation would be in the future. That afternoon I was invited by the team to watch a surgery on a three-month-old who was needing a clamp placed around her pulmonary vein to restrict the excessive amount of blood being pumped into her heart. During the surgery the doctors would pause and allowed me to get right in there and photograph all the different procedures that took place. I thought I would have a hard time watching, but it got to a point where I think I began to annoy the surgeons with how intrigued I was and how close I kept on creeping to the operation table. The rest of the week I was able to make myself useful by working the patient intake part of the clinic and helping out with taking vitals. I just knew packing my own scrubs was a smart idea. The last day I worked clinic was for a group of senior citizens that came to the Red Cross office from a convalescent home downtown. I’ve never seen so many ailments in a single grouping of people. As if getting all the pertinent medical information from each patient wasn’t hard enough, their deep patois used made understanding them nearly impossible, though humorous at times. The day ended with another open-heart surgery on a five year old who had two holes in two different chambers of his heart. The operation was one of the raddest things I’ve ever seen. To close up the holes, all blood flow through the heart needs to be rerouted to an outside machine for life support during the surgery. So each vein and artery was detached from the heart and hooked up to tubes leading into the machine. Slowly and steadily the boy’s heart came to a stop and the surgeons began the two-hour operation. To ensure that none of the heart tissue was damaged from lack of oxygen coming through during the procedure, ice in a saline solution was placed all around it in the chest cavity. Seeing a nurse pour that into a gaping hole in a little boy’s chest was a little unnerving, but still so irresistible to watch. From that one week of working along side Red Cross and JCHF volunteers, I have had so many opportunities open up. The woman organizing the surgeons from JCHF put me into contact with some fantastic contacts that have begun helping find leads and means to construct a clinic in my community and offered to have the cardiologists work a few days up at the clinic once it is erected and running. It’s the introduction to the Red Cross staff, though, that has been most valuable, especially in my most recent efforts to get my community prepared for hurricane season. Not only have they donated first aid supplies to put into the primary and basic schools, but have collaborated with our Citizens Association to host a first aid and CPR training and certification course. I’m hoping that many future projects will come about with the Red Cross, specifically a first responder training program that is being talked about. It’s still so amazing to me the things I am able to do here that I would never be able to do in the States. I’ve been urged to consider it so many times, but I’m really starting to think about options for med school. I never wanted to go down that path, but it seems that no matter what direction I take with my volunteer work, I always end up working in the medical community anyways. Who knows; I've at least have plenty of time to decide.


I’ve only been on island for three months and already it feels like I’ve been living here for years. Part of that can be attributed to the similarities of Hawaii and Jamaica, both culturally and geographically, but also because I’ve had dozens of opportunities to explore and be involved with things I’d never be able to do in the States. Most of my weekends since arrival have been booked up with beach get-aways and getting to know Kingston. The lighthouse at the Eastern most point of the island was one of the first adventures. Meg, a white Jamaican woman living down the road from me, led the caravan of her daughter and boyfriend, me and another volunteer and a family friend across the island in search of the long forgotten lighthouse that was almost impossible to find. It took hours of wrong turns and Red Stripes, but we finally arrived to a beautiful white sand deserted beach across the bay from the lighthouse. After splashing around for a bit, and loosing my sunglasses in the process, we all set off to climb up the lighthouse. A few setbacks tried to get in our way of getting to the top, like rust covered locks and an instantaneous and unanimous fear of heights, but the reward of a 360 view of the countryside and beaches was worth the run around. A few weeks later, the opportunity arose to attend a literature festival on the other side of the island and visit a volunteer at his picturesque waterfront site, Treasure Beach. Myself and three other volunteers spent the weekend lounging on the sand reading, listening to poets read from their most recent works and dancing to reggae until all hours of the night. A few volunteers from Group 79 rented the upper floor of the vacation house our Group 80 volunteer lives in, so we were able to get to know a lot more about the volunteers that have been on island for a year now and enjoy our time off together. I realized half way through the weekend that my travel plans to return to Kingston on Sunday, a 7-hour public transportation journey, was out of the question. Taxis hardly ever run on Sundays and when they do, it takes hours to fill up the car and leave to the next stop over to wait for the same thing. I lucked out when Meg called me and said that her weekend escapades for the weekend just happened to place her just a half hour north of Treasure Beach and would be able to pick me up on the way home. If finding a ride home wasn’t exciting enough, we spent the entire Sunday afternoon exploring the South coast with stops at Little Ochi for lunch and sightseeing at Gutt River and the Alligator Ponds. Along the way, Meg pointed out at least a half dozen other things we could have been doing like a hike to a cave and underground river spring and different beaches for camping. Most of these places are the sort that you have to really know where they are to know where they are. I looked through two different maps and couldn’t find half of them. It’s going to be so fun exploring with my new Jamaican friends and family and avoiding the tourist traps of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. As for getting to know Kingston, I’ve already been told that I walk around town like a local. It took a few weeks to understand the taxi system and find my favorite food spots, but now it’s great to know the town well enough to show other volunteers around when they come visit. Finding little things to put into a routine has been really key for me to start feeling like this is home. I’m starting to take Salsa classes at the Hilton every Thursday night with another volunteer near town, I am welcomed by name each time I visit any of the organizations I’ve begun to collaborate with and I get teased for ordering the same thing every time I go to any of about four of my regular lunch spots. Getting to know my community has been a bit more difficult, as it is a commuter town for those working in Kingston and the set up of the houses being so spread out has made meeting people a challenge. But I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to win them all over in the first few months. I’m working on expanding on the work and family relationships I already have here and meeting people on a one on one basis. It’s tough finding opportunities to socialize with women, as most are working all day and in their homes at night. It would be so easy to become a part of the click that stands on the corner shops everyday goofing off playing dominos and listening to loud dancehall music, but I need to keep up my professional appearances at all times, being that Peace Corps volunteering is a 24/7 job. Having the escape into Kingston, just a half hour down the hill, is what keeps my life feeling normal. And since so many from my community work in town, most of my run ins and interaction with Irish Town and Redlight people have been in supermarkets and bus stops in Kingston. But now that I’ve gotten accustomed to my new surroundings and began to set up a system and routine, in true Van Mo fashion, it’s time to take off again for more exploration and adventures!

Preparing for Hurricanes

Yesterday began with a flashflood warning, followed by the fruition of that wonderful prediction, and was concluded with a complete blackout of the entire Blue Mountain range. Today, it has been raining – bucketing – all morning and afternoon. In just a few hours, the river has risen 3 feet and is roaring. From what I’ve been hearing, this is just a warm up for what’s to come in this looming hurricane season upon us. The official season started June 1st and lasts until December 1st. The predictions for this year has just come out and sited 12 tropical storms to look out for; at least 4 of them guaranteed to develop into full-fledged hurricanes of a level 3 or above. I tease my Jamaican family about how excited I am to experience a hurricane for the first time and the response is always the same: a rolling of the eyes, the sarcastic “kiss mi teet” sound and my favorite sassy expression, “cho”. The house I’m living in is situated above the merging of two rivers that surround the land on both sides, so for us, hurricane season means complete evacuation from the property to avoid being washed away. Because we’re tucked away in a valley in the mountains, the winds do little to nothing, but the rains are disastrous. The roads to the houses in the hills are already in a permanently dilapidated condition and with the expected flash floods with the hurricanes, we are expecting at least 3 to 4 different instances when the entire community will be cut off from landslides covering or destroying the only road in and out. In the event that a serious hurricane, of level 4 or 5, is projected to run course over the island, all volunteers are instructed to evacuate our homes and rush with only a handful of necessary personal items to a designated consolidation point in Kingston. If the hurricane gets to the point that most of the island is on high alert or evacuating to shelters, volunteers are placed in the US embassy under protection of the Marines. It’s nice to know that such a well thought out plan of action is set up for us, but I can’t help but think about how I’d want to stick it out with my family and community. I might be jinxing myself in saying that, because in all likelihood, I’ll probably end up stranded on the mountain after a landslide blocking my only way out and I’ll have no other choice but to stick it out. Though, I am working on an alternative: making friends with the military base just above my house and hoping that one of them won’t mind stopping by with the helicopter if things get sketchy. Hey, I can dream.