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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005 02:58 pm

Witnessing miracles

Group delivers medical supplies to Dominican clinic, and returns with new insight

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Asked his age, the man in black says that he’s been in the Dominican Republic 26 years. He likely doesn’t know how old he is.
PHOTOS BY LARRY HARNLY

In June, a 16-member team from West Side Christian Church delivered medical supplies to the Christian Dominican Medical Mission, a clinic in the Dominican Republic run by missionaries Gary and Cindy Klein. The Kleins and their children live in Mucha Agua, a village of about 800, roughly the size of Illiopolis. About 70 percent of this Caribbean nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, lives in poverty. Here’s a description of the clinic’s work, as witnessed by Springfield volunteers.

MUCHA AGUA, Dominican Republic — The girl who walks into the cluttered, dark clinic office is 14 years old. She has a question for the medical personnel: Is she pregnant?

If the answer is yes, she is not even close to the youngest pregnant woman that missionary Gary Klein, a registered nurse, has seen in his 14 years in the Dominican Republic. The record holder, dubious though that record may be, was 11.

Gary’s daughter Lori, who works in the clinic with Gary and is valued for her translating ability, goes to her home, across the road from the clinic, for a pregnancy-test kit. The results are positive, and so another child is going to give birth to a child. In the United States, that 14-year-old might be in shock after finding out the result and devastated at the thought of her immediate future. This girl shows neither emotion.

Reactions from the patients come by way of translation. Lori says that the girl does not seem overly excited about being pregnant but adds: “She was happy to find out her due date.”

Pregnancies in the Dominican Republic often don’t take long in what could be called the dating process. Many are planned.

“Mothers send out their daughters all perfumed up to get a man,” says Cindy Klein, Gary’s wife. “They want to get their daughters out of the house.”

Some mothers want their daughters to become pregnant in the hope that the girl will go to live with the father of the child and his family. But the mother could wind up with an additional child if the daughter remains at home.

Marriages are not as common as living together is. But pregnant women usually have been with just one man. Cindy adds: “If a woman is pregnant, she usually is called married.”

“This is a base society,” adds Gary, who does not distribute condoms or other birth control at the clinic.

Gary has an apt name for the mission: the Make-A-Wish Clinic.

Wednesday is clinic day, and people start lining up around 6:30 a.m. for the opening two hours later. Fifty people might be waiting when Klein enters the door.

One elderly woman is carried in by a man. Considering her age, medical workers might have thought she was in critical condition. But Gary treats her, and she walks out, takes a seat in the middle on a three-person motorbike, and rides away.

Before the woman departs, Mar Lukow, a dialysis nurse in Springfield who’s volunteering at the clinic, checks her blood pressure, temperature, and throat. Everything seems fine in light of the woman’s age, Mar says, so the woman gets some vitamins, a smile, and a back rub.

“Gary said he knows her well, and she just needed some TLC,” she adds.

Gary, who has a great sense of humor and needs it in his high-stress job, notes: “That’s a way to get to the front of the line. She’s been this way for 20 years.” We joke that we have witnessed a miracle.

One of the oldest men we’ve seen comes into the clinic. He says he is 88, “way beyond the average,” Gary says. He does not doubt the age, observing: “He smelled 88.”

Later a slender man dressed in black and using a walking stick arrives. He carries a machete, in a case, slung over his shoulder. Curious, Mar touches it. Not a good idea. The man quickly turns to see what is happening. Just how old is this man?

Lori poses the question. She receives an extremely long answer in Spanish.

One thing is missing from the man’s answer: his age. He likely does not even know how old he is. Gary says that he has treated a man who claimed to be 105.

“He has been in the Dominican Republic for 26 years,” Lori said after the man in black leaves the room. The years do not add up.

“He grew up in Santo Domingo,” Lori reports. “He speaks Creole and Spanish. He was here when Trujillo left office [1961, when dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated]. That was a bad year for the country, he said. He grew up in Haiti and lives off the land. I think he could be in his nineties, maybe even 100.”

The man is willing to pose for a photo.

As patients arrive, we learn their symptoms through translation. The wording is often unique.

One woman reports that she is “dying of constipation.” Gary considers an x-ray to see just how backed up the woman is. Another who complains of the same ailment is asked when she last had a bowel movement.

“Seventy-five years ago,” she tells Gary. Something has apparently been lost in translation, so he asks again and is told “16 years ago.” Again he asks; this time the response is “five days.” “I’ll take that answer,” he says.

A woman reports that her “blood is itching.” Another tells Gary, “Wind is blowing in my body and going down one arm.” Still another announces that she has “sick eyes.”

Many men complain of lower-back pain because of the hard agricultural work.

“Just because you are old does not get you off the hook from working,” Gary notes.

The 16-member West Side Christian Church team has delivered the largest supply of medicine — about 1,600 pounds — ever taken to the Kleins’ operation by one church group, Gary says. Medications are dispensed in large numbers. Chewable vitamins similar to candy are popular with the kids.

“By now, people know what meds they want,” says Gary, who has come to understand that color may determine a medicine’s popularity. “The trick is to get them not to eat all the vitamins the first day.”

One man who comes to get care for a cut tells the staff that he has been using a mixture of ground-up aspirin and coconut oil to treat the wound.

A pregnant woman tells the staff that she has not felt her baby move recently. The baby turns out to be OK. Pregnant women are advised to go to a hospital in Cambita, about 30 minutes away on a bad road, in time to deliver.

Mar Lukow, who is making her first trip to the Dominican Republic, offers her impressions: “I am still absorbing the whole medical experience. How eye-opening! One of the many things learned: Don’t complain if you have to wait for a while in the doctor’s office. Some of these people walked many miles and sat for hours to get some medical help.

“As a mother, I can’t even imagine having a sick child and possibly not being able to get treatment. I was handing out vitamins and flu medication, antibiotics, ulcer medications; treated children for parasites; and gave pain medications. It felt so trivial. Here [in the United States], we just walk into a Walgreens and buy those things. I realized soon that if Gary would not have this clinic, these people would most likely go untreated.

“I was very impressed how well-behaved the children were — no crying, no disrespecting us or the parents. I had to drain a cyst on a little boy, which is very painful; he just sat there and whimpered quietly. What a brave child.”

Mar says that the most difficult treatment she has rendered is the removal of sutures “by flashlight, since the power had just gone out, with some semirusty scissors. The suture material looked and felt like yarn, but I managed. Something else learned: Make the best out of what you have.

“No paperwork, no charting, no fear of lawsuits. What a refreshing way to practice true medicine.”

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