The Godfather

One month in Roatan has felt like a lifetime. I find that when I travel to a new place, the more different the daily life is from my own, the more the experiences stand out in my mind, and therefore the longer each day feels. It makes me think that the richest life of all would be to consistently have new experiences, but that’s a different topic altogether.

Learning from the Godfather himself

Suffice it to say that my life here has been a stark contrast from daily life as a med student in Portland. It has been two parallel stories; the first story is that of five medical students (and one communications expert) traveling to Roatan, Honduras as part of a global health initiative to volunteer at a health clinic and serve the local community, which is as a whole in serious need of medical education and resources. The second story is that of the same five medical students living on the beach of a gorgeous island, enjoying a unique opportunity to experience the sunlight, turquoise waters, and breathtaking wildlife of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Each day both stories have played out, and trying to balance them has been challenging, but it’s been the very best type of challenge, at times exhausting, but always educational and exciting.

During our first week at Clinica Esperanza, I worked with the medical director, Dr. Raymond Cherington, known to us as Dr. Raymond (if you want to know more about the clinic itself, check it out here: Dr. Raymond is the traditional, quintessential doctor that you read about in books as a child or maybe even experienced yourself if you’re from a small town in the US or elsewhere. What I mean by a traditional doctor is that if someone has a problem, he is the man to go to, period. He is a doctor when he wakes up, and when he goes to sleep. He takes house calls, he comes to the clinic for nighttime emergencies, he spends all morning in the clinic and all afternoon at his own practice. I’ve never met anyone on the island who hasn’t heard of him. It doesn’t matter what kind of ailment you have, he will either fix it, or tell you what or where you need to go to get it fixed. Working under him was in many ways life-altering for me as a future physician because he accomplishes what he does with little help from technology (compared to American hospitals) and instead uses physical exam skills and his own knowledge and experience to help treat a community of over 100,000 people.

On Wednesday, a woman arrived at the clinic looking very ill. Starting at 5AM, long before the clinic opens, patients begin lining up to be seen by Dr. Raymond and the other physicians at the clinic. However, if a patient appears acutely ill, we see them first. On this morning, this woman clearly needed to be seen immediately, but Dr. Raymond had not arrived. Julia, a nurse practitioner student, and I saw and examined the patient to find out what was going on. It was difficult for us to determine her illness. When Dr. Raymond arrived, his calm demeanor immediately enveloped the room with a sense of assurance.  What was previously a frantic scene with an uncomfortable patient now felt like it was under some sort of control merely with Dr. Raymond’s presence.

Throughout the week, I felt that Dr. Raymond reminded me of someone, specifically the way he spoke. He is quite mild mannered (considering how many people are constantly competing for his attention), and he speaks relatively quietly, but with absolute power. What he says goes. By Friday, after five days of working with him, I realized who he reminded me of — The Godfather.  Like Al Pacino in the famous trilogy, Dr. Raymond has a (mostly) quiet control of the entire clinic. He cannot walk down the hall or into the pharmacy without three people asking him about their current patients or about an administrative task or without exchanging a joke with someone. He is a man who truly cares about what he does and who he does it for, and it comes out everyday. Unlike the Godfather, however, I never saw Dr. Raymond frustrated or annoyed, even by all us inexperienced volunteers who ask countless questions about the clinic itself and medicine in general. On one occasion Dr. Raymond explained to me that he felt his success comes merely from listening. “It’s not about being a ‘better doctor’ than anyone else,” he said, “it’s about making sure people know you’re listening to their problems. That’s the whole thing.”
On Thursday night, Sean, Nick and I played basketball with Dr. Raymond, some other volunteers, and some local Honduran teens and young adults. The court was right on the beach, with lights that go on as long as you’re willing to pay for the electricity. Dr. Raymond played point guard, a natural position for a relatively short guy who knows how to tell people what to do. He ran the pick and roll like he runs the clinic, at his own pace and with great precision, especially given he was 20 years older than most other people on the court. We all had a great time, and you could sense from the kids in the community how respected this guy is. It turns out he also coaches basketball, and is raising money so his team can travel to Guatemala for a tournament. He has a board meeting tomorrow night, and is trusting us to coach his squad for a practice, so I guess it’s time to brainstorm some drills. I don’t know how he has time for everything, but I know that I am so lucky to have worked with him.