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A medical mission

PETERBOROUGH: Local doctors and nurses, along with their families, travel to Jamaica to provide health services to needy schoolchildren

In the summer of 2012, Dr. Adele de Vera made her first two-week medical mission trip to Jamaica. This August marked the third of her annual trips, and this time, she brought five helpers with her in hopes of expanding her medical teachings throughout south central Jamaica.

Dr. de Vera, who works for Monadnock Regional Pediatrics in Peterborough, brought her daughter, Tia, Dr. Beth Cooley and her daughter, Mei, Linda Caracappa and registered nurse Meghan John along for this summer’s mission.

The team met for the first time at the Manchester Airport when they arrived for their flight. “After the third day, we knew everything about each other,” laughed Caracappa.

Staying in the small city of Mandeville, Jamaica, the group was provided room, board and transportation by the Roman Catholic Diocese.

De Vera’s main focus during the trip was to administer physical exams to school-aged children. This year, De Vera and company visited eight Catholic schools located in the Jamaican cities of Manchester, St. Elizabeth and Clarendon, in the districts of Hayes, Oxford, Williamsfield, Black River, Chapelton, Christiana, Cross Keys, Lionel Town and May Pen.

The team set up makeshift clinics in school classrooms, and administered 415 medical exams during eight days of day-long shifts. The team fashioned beds out of desks, making the classrooms look as close to a doctor’s office as possible.

De Vera and company established a process for Jamaicans who wished to have a medical exam. First, they would go and see Tia, providing her with name, date of birth, age and family information.

“I asked them who brought them in or who they came with. This was often confusing because you have grandmothers living with cousins, daughters and boyfriends,” explained Tia, who also took on the challenge of understanding the patois dialect the Jamaicans speak.

“It was English, but hard to understand,” said Cooley.

After giving the necessary information to Tia, the Jamaicans went to see Mei, who checked eye sight, and recorded height and weight. Next, John, a nurse who works at the Cedarcrest Center for children with disabilities in Keene, took the patients’ vitals and hemoglobin levels, before they waited to see either Dr. Cooley or Dr. de Vera.

“The children need physical exams to attend school. A physical exam is 500 Jamaican dollars, which is $5 American dollars. They can’t afford them — they need that money for food,” said Dr. de Vera. Local clinics in Jamaica are only open one day a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and emergency rooms have eight-hour waiting times, according to John.

De Vera echoed John’s concern, saying, “Jamaica relies on doctors from the States. ”

Because she has been visiting for three summers now, the children are getting used to seeing Dr. de Vera. “Jamaicans are happy just to see a doctor,” she said. De Vera asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I got a lot of police, soldiers and pilots. When someone would say a doctor, I’d say, ‘Good, you can do what I’m doing,’” smiled De Vera.

While de Vera attended to the school-aged kids, Cooley, who works at Rindge Family Practice, saw the children’s parents and other family members.

“A lot of the adults wanted to know their blood pressure. They were relieved when I told them it was normal,” said Cooley.

Many families would line up outside of the schools before the team arrived.

“The Jamaicans really do care about their children. They would wait for us to arrive and they are paying for their children to attend private school,” said Caracappa.

Cooley made the same observation, saying, “The parents were really happy when we told them their kids were healthy.”

The team was armed with toothpaste, antibiotics, anti-hypertension drugs and other over-the-counter medications provided by Monadnock Community Hospital.

Students from the St. Patrick School in Jaffrey decorated drawstring bags, which the team distributed to the children.

“We arrived with 15 fifty-pound bags full of school supplies and medicine,” said Cooley.

Despite all of the medical and school supplies the team handed out, the trip’s real purpose was to educate the children and their families on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, according to Dr. de Vera.

The Catholic schools the team visited were members of the Diocese.

“The schools were tiny. They didn’t have a lot of money. But they did have more than the public schools. The schools were both feeding and teaching the students,” said Cooley.

According to De Vera, attending the private schools costs 3,500 Jamaican dollars, or $35 American dollars, a year.

The private schools are thin, aluminum structures, much different from ConVal High School, which Mei attends. “I got to see a different perspective. Things were very different,” she said.

School buildings were just one of the many differences the team got to experience during the trip.

“The roads were one-car length wide, but somehow two cars always fit, and the roads were full of goats and stray dogs,” recalled Caracappa. Cooley noticed the lack of buses, “People either walk or take a group taxi, and the goats and dogs roam free.”

De Vera plans to continue making the annual trip every August. “Every professional that goes to Jamaica does acute care. I want to establish a medical service. The trip is always really fun. They want us back,” she said.

Caracappa, who served as the ultimate volunteer and organizer during the trip, was amazed at the appreciation the Jamaicans showed the team.

“The trip was eye-opening. You give these kids something as simple as a sticker and they are so grateful. They puff their chest out and ask you to stick it on them,” she smiled, adding, “The children really wanted the affection.”

The team plans to make the trip next year, possibly bringing some additional helpers. “The problems these Jamaicans face are the same ones we do — the solutions are just different,” said de Vera. “They don’t need to live like us to enjoy life. The people of Jamaica are very happy and fulfilled,” added Cooley.

Dylan Fisher can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235.

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