The girl and her little brother look through the bars of the gate, their big brown eyes full of wonder and curiosity. They watch as our medical team unloads the brightly-painted bus which brought us from Santo Domingo to this western Dominican Republic town of San Juan de la Maguana.
The pile of US Army duffle bags grows larger, until we get them organized and ferried off to wherever they go in the clinic compound. The compound includes living quarters and a dining hall, and our team of 28 moves in, getting acquainted with what will be our residence for ten days.
“Americano! Americano!” the kids call out as we pass through the barrios, the neighborhoods of the very poor. The barrio homes are typically dirt-floored hovels, each of which is shared by several generations of a family.
It’s two days later and our team of physicians, nurses, and various helpers is scattered across the valley – some attending to surgery at the base clinic, others providing community health services at outlying schools and makeshift clinics. As the team dentist, my assistant and I are visiting a school today, surveying the dental needs of the children and providing simple treatment in an unused and unlit classroom.
The children have arresting smiles, and their happy spirit is contagious. As we leave, they crowd around us, hold our hands, and escort us to the school gate. The radiance of these kids leaves me shaking my head in amazement.
The patients seen by the medical team are stoic, gracious and grateful. The surgeons perform procedures like hernia repairs and corrections of skeletal deformities. The doctors who man the makeshift clinics in the barrios treat their patients for various ailments, especially those associated with inadequate sanitation.
The days are full, lots of patients are treated. But I get the recurrent feeling that we (the visiting medical team, the ones with the state-of-the-art techniques and knowledge) are really the ones receiving the care.
It’s another evening and I’m returning to the clinic compound. The dusty sky to the west, over the Haitian border, is of deepening shades of orange. Through the poorest barrio I pass as “Americano!” greetings wash over me. An older gentleman calls to me. It’s Manuel, whom I treated earlier this morning. He’s seated at a wobbly table with three other shirtless men playing a local favorite: dominos. They insist that I join them, and two hours later I’m still here.
Even though the domino game has long since run its course, I’m compelled to linger; the warmth of these folks makes it hard to leave. It seems like I’ve met all the kids, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles in this part of the barrio. Bowls of hearty beans and rice appear and are passed around. We communicate mainly through laughs and gestures, their grasp of English, and mine of Spanish, tenuous at best.
I finally make my way to my bunk at the clinic compound. Before sleep comes over me like a soft wave, I consider how deeply I feel nourished by these gracious Dominicans, and not just from the great food.
At the clinic, I work alongside a Dominican dentist. We extract infected teeth and repair ones which can be saved. I had expected to show the always-smiling Dr. Haverra some modern US dental techniques, but instead he teaches me a thing or two.
In our free time we visit the bustling mercado -market- and revel in the sights, smells, and sounds of the place. “Now there’s a lost art for you!” Someone remarks as we watch a grizzled old guy rolling cigars from substantial tobacco leaves. One evening we attend an inspiring worship service at a community chapel, the words of the cheerful and robust minister translated for us by our team Spanish expert. Afterwards, we wander back home, feeling deeply moved as we trace our way through the barrios.
Our time in San Juan de la Maguana flies by. As the bus jostles along on our way back to Santo Domingo and home, I try to catch up on my journal. The theme that keeps running through my jottings is one of the wonder and gratitude of the people of the Dominican barrios who lead lives of such simple elegance. So different from our modern American lives fraught with tight schedules and the acquisition and maintenance of material possessions.
Our team came to this place to lend a hand, to share hope and love through providing medical treatment. And that we did. Little did we know, however, how profoundly affected we would be, in turn, ministered to by these gracious folks who can teach us much about life and remind us of the importance of the simple things . . . Like family and friends, humor and grace – and an abiding trust in the goodness of life that ultimately transcends so many of its challenges.