Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals pack into the back of a four-by-four truck, carrying hockey bags of supplies and head down washed out dirt paths called “roads” to reach their patients.
It’s the Dominican Republic, but there’s no resort, and no beach nearby. This is the rural territory of poverty-stricken San Jose De Ocoa. Out here, there are mostly farms. People live in small tin huts, crowded by sometimes 15 people living together. There is little work to go around, so many live unemployed or with nearly insignificant incomes. The community might have one communal outhouse. There’s likely no clean water to drink, or if there is, it only runs once a day.
Along the mountain path the trucks of medical volunteers pass people on the backs of donkeys, piled on motorbikes or walking in lines. Hours later, those very same people will arrive at the mobile clinics set up by the volunteers who passed them in the truck. For some, it’s the only time they receive health care all year.
Men, women and children come to the clinic with untreated wounds, parasitic infestation, infections, diabetes, and malnutrition.
Thanks to people like Sarah Quesnel of Collingwood, there’s medicine, healthcare and some support for rural inhabitants of Ocoa.
“It breaks my heart that they don’t have the accessibility that we have,” said Quesnel. “Here we go to emergency for a cold sometimes.”
Quesnel saw one lady at our clinic whose whole arm was burned horribly a week before we were there, and left untreated. It’s just not possible for some people to go to the cities or communities where there is health care.
Quesnel is part of a group of medical professionals who visit Ocoa annually. It started when she was a nursing student at Georgian College. She has graduated and is working as an RPN at Chartwell Georgian Traditions in Collingwood, and as a community care nurse for Right at Home Canada and Care Partners.
“The trip melts my heart,” she said. “We take so many things for granted… like the fact that we flush our toilets with clean water, and there’s people there without clean water for drinking.”
Quesnel is going back to Ocoa for her third trip in May with a group of 35 medical volunteers. She’ll be joined by Emily Hughes of Barrie, Katie Douglas, from the GTA and Sheila Wojcik of Wyevale. This will be Wojcik’s 30th trip.
They call themselves an interprofessional community group. They have made connections to help make the trip more efficient and to reach the underserviced and remote communities.
While on mission, they will set up clinics where they see between 80 and a few hundred patients in a day, and they will also pack a backpack and head out to communities on foot to do home visits.
The group has partnered with a Sarnia-based charity called Rayjon Share Care, which allows them to offer tax receipts and access to charity-specific fundraising avenues. Rayjon conducts trips to Haiti and Dominican Republic and connects with locals there to support all kinds of projects from tree planting, to construction, to eyeglass clinics.
Quesnel’s group also has contacts in the Dominican including dominican-based aid organization Adesjo, local hospitals, long term care homes and even the chief epidemiologist for all of Dominican Republic. On the ground, the team works closely with Sister Teofila, a nun in her 80s who lives and works at a compound first established as a school for children without birth certificates.
“Anywhere you go in the Dominican Republic, everyone knows Sister Teofila,” said Quesnel. The Sister has a strong sense of who’s in need in the community and directs the humanitarian teams their way. Once the trip is ended, any extra supplies, medications or vitamins are left with Sister Teofila at her compound. Residents know to visit her for a follow up where necessary.
While there, Quesnel’s group will also visit a local hospital, long-term care home, addiction centre, and a women’s shelter.
The most common health issues Quesnel sees on her trips are parasitic infestation, heart problems, tonsillitis, diabetes, severe oral issues, bacterial skin infections, urinary tract infections, and allergies.
Nearly everyone at the clinic is in desperate need of eye drops.
In many cases, poor hygiene is a factor in the patient’s health issues. But without clean water, proper hygiene is nearly impossible.
The group is always on the lookout for toothbrushes, toothpaste, eye drops and hand sanitizer, among other things, to bring with them on the trip.
In fact, each member of the group packs two or three hockey bags full of supplies (the cost to check the bags is absorbed by the volunteers). They also bring things like wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and other assistive devices.
“A trip like this changes you as a person,” said Quesnel. “It opens your eyes to all the things most people don’t even know about … and until you’re actually there, you don’t know. It doesn’t hit you until you’re living it.”
One of the greatest struggles for Quesnel, who has a passion for community nursing, is that she can’t check back on her patients.
“I can’t do my follow-up,” she said. “It’s nice that there are people there to check on our patients so not all of them fall through the cracks, but I know some do. We’re not going to help everyone, but we’re making a difference.”
Her dream is to work in Ocoa full time, coordinating clinics all year long.
Quesnel’s next trip back is May 4 to May 13. She’s been collecting donations of medical supplies all year, and is raising money via a Go Fund Me campaign online to help buy more supplies for the trip.
She and her group have also planned a fundraiser night at the Barrie North location of Boston Pizza. On April 9 the group will be at Boston Pizza running a draw, and helping serve tables. Ten per cent of the sales between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. will be donated to Quesnel’s group for more supplies.
“It would be nice to get people excited about these types of trips,” said Quesnel. “There’s a lot of places that need it.”
She is still collecting medical supplies, her high needs list includes:
- Pre-natal vitamins
- Children's vitamins (no gummies)
- Ibuprofen (regular and extra strength)
- Allergy meds (adults and kids)
- Anti-diarrhea and stool softeners
- Stethoscopes, penlights, blood pressure cuffs
- Gluco-meters, test strips, lancets
- Toothbrushes and toothpaste
- Feminine hygiene products
- Anti-fungal creams
- Eye drops
Donated items must not expire before July 2018.
Funds can also be donated online here. Tax receipts for donations over $25 will be issued tax receipts.
Anyone interested in joining the team for next year's trip or making a donation of supplies can contact Quesnel via email here.