Hemophilia in the Dominican Republic

Mission: Dominican Republic

The last day of our trip to the Dominican Republic was reserved to visit the homes of four families with hemophilia. We started out bright and early, the tropical heat slowly rising with the sun, and headed for Bonao, a pretty town located on the roaring Yuca River. It took about an hour to get there, to meet with the Carlos Manuel and Jose Luis Ortiz. With me were Jeannine, executive director of Save One Life (a child sponsorship program), Haydee de Garcia, president of FAHEM, Maria Espinal, nurse at the Robert Reid Cabral Hospital, and Zoraida, general manager of LA Kelley Communications. Zoraida sponsors Jose Luis, a young man with hemophilia, and our visit would check on how he and his brother were.

Meeting with them was pure joy. The Ortiz brothers are natural poets, and every word and sentence is chosen to express kindness, civility and warmth. No matter that they have hemophilia, that their family struggles economically, that they both have severe joint damage that leaves them with unbending knees and hobbling gaits. When you are with them, you are the most important thing in the world. They exude a kind of hospitality very rarely found. Marisa, their mother, had not seen me in about four years and we pounced on each other with hugs. She laid out a fantastic meal. We then walked down to the river, to see the beauty of Bonao. It was a lovely visit. We were sorry to leave.

An hour later we were searching for the home of the Gimenz family. They live on the fringe of Santo Domingo in a place I am sure very few if any Americans have seen. Dirt roads, towering palms, rows of tin roofs with chickens scuttling everywhere, this village or settlement is remote, not easily accessible and devastating for two children with hemophilia. Angel is only six and almost died in December from a head bleed. Thankfully, his mother, also named Zoraida, was educated by FAHEM about symptoms and knew what to do. Angel was hit in the head and began exhibiting symptoms of a head bleed; he was brought to the hospital that night. A miracle considering Zoraida does not own a car nor have much money, and transportation is questionable and unreliable. Angel’s older brother Andres watched and listened as we heard this story, occasionally smiling and dropping his head shyly when we looked at him. He had just attended camp with us. An extremely handsome young man of 15, he has a killer smile and a friendly manner. He gave me a brief tour of their tidy wooden home, only three rooms, shared with four dogs, cats and a hen and rooster in the back. Both boys need sponsors, so if you are interested in helping this family, please go to www.SaveOneLife.net and let us know!

Next stop, the Vasquez family, who live closer to the capital and down a small tienda or shop selling candy and things. The shop is really just a window from which they display what little they have to offer. Gabriel is the young boy also looking for sponsorship. Last stop was the home of Misael and Jayro Medina. Misael attended camp as a counselor and did a great job. His brother Jayro, deeply religious, has not walked in years. So many bleeds left him bedridden, during which time his muscles atrophied. But he does not whine or complain but shows again that warm hospitality. Though these are men, we will still look for sponsors to help ease their burden in life. Their father only earns about $25 a month, and life is expensive in the city.

See all the trip photos here.

Seeing the conditions of the poor, the crippled joints of hemophilia, might leave a person feeling overwhelmed, stunned, depressed. But not us. We feel honored to have met these families, impressed at how confidently they face life’s harsh challenges, and motivated to help them financially through our program. We saw the kids at camp who are already benefiting from having a sponsor–they use their sponsorship funds to travel to the hospital, to buy medicine, to stay in school. The Ortiz brother attend college and will one day get jobs in the tourist industry, where they can charm visitors to their land, thanks to the support from Save One Life, for funds, and Project SHARE, for factor. They are one success story among many; and you can help us have more. Adios for now!

Camp: Dancing, Swimming, Learning, Bonding

Yesterday was so busy at camp I didn’t have a second to blog. The day started with some wake-up exercises on the lawn, in this case a dodge ball game. All the campers and staff are wearing T-shirts with the camp name on it–“Yo si pudeo!” After breakfast, the campers listened to a lecture by a lively orthopedic surgeon who used Bob the Puppet (renamed “Pepe”) to demonstrate joint damage in a kid-friendly way. Then off to the pool! Wow, did the children come alive! All campers are divided into groups, who give themselves team names (like the Stars, or Alpha-Omega), chaperoned by teens with hemophilia, who used to be campers themselves. And they were wonderful! Like big brothers to their little “hermanos” with hemophilia.

After lunch came another lecture, then arts and crafts, with board games for those who opted out of arts and crafts. Then practice of the big event–a talent show! And what a time it was. What imagination! Each team presented a skit, something to do with hemophilia and empowerment. No one told them what to do. They just instinctively wanted to do skits that showed how they were empowered and who anyone could be empowered. Most of the skits were hysterical, showing comical situations and exaggerated characters. But one took a serious turn when it showed a father coming home drunk and striking his child with hemophilia, the mother helpless. Domestic abuse is a huge problem in Latin America and the boys deftly integrated this social problem with hemophilia. Prizes were awarded to everyone, and then the real fun began. Dominicans are expert dancers and the DJ (Horatio, former camper) pumped out some wild merengue and salsa for everyone to dance to. Not even hemophilia and arthropathy can keep these boys from dancing. We had a conga line, contests, and everyone–from patient to staff to hematologist and nurse–got in on the fun.

Today was a bit more subdued. At least no bleeds as a result of the dancing, thankfully! The camp celebrated a Catholic Mass in the pavilion after breakfast, followed by heart warming testimonials from the older boys about the role faith plays in their life with hemophilia. They spoke directly to the younger boys, instructing them to pray and keep faith even in the darkness of a bad bleed. Later, everyone went for another swim, and then had lunch. The weather was beautiful, sunny and hot.

Though camp was only two and a half days, close bonds were formed, even for the new boys. We enrolled more boys into Save One Life, to help them financially. Tomorrow we will visit some of the boys in their humble homes.

Visit here to see all camp photos.

The bus arrived and everyone departed back to Santo Domingo, a quick jaunt, to congregate at the Robert Reid Cabral Hospital and to await some anxious parents. Happiness shown on the faces of both parents and child as they were reunited. The boys were armed with toys donated from the New England Hemophilia Association, and infused with factor donated from Project SHARE. Does it get any better than that? It was a great camp; it seemed so effortless, but tremendous planning and coordination goes into a project like this. We will miss all the boys dearly as another year passes. Hasta el proximo año !

Hola! From Camp in the DR

Tropical, warm, friendly… these words always come to mind when I am in the Dominican Republic, a country that I have been fortunate to have worked with for 10 years now. Today was our first day of camp, the 9th annual “Yo Si Puedo” (Yes, I Can!) bringing together 42 boys with hemophilia for three days of fun, socialization, education and medical treatment. 

We arrived last night and were met by Mecho Benoit, good friend and executive member of the Fundación Apoyo al Hemofílico (FAHEM), the national hemophilia organization. We drove to her sister Haydee de Garcia’s home. Haydee is the president of FAHEM. Any baseball fans reading this? Her husband is Damaso Garcia, former second baseman of the Toronto Bluejays. They have a wonderful son with hemophilia, now 23.

We brought with us lots of factor, toys and supplies for the 42 campers. After a wonderful meal (food is delicious and fresh in the DR) we repacked a bit and retired, worried a little about the weather as it might rain.

We had overcast skies today but no rain. We met up with the boys and their moms at the Robert Reid Cabral Hospital in the capital, Santo Domingo. After some joyful reunions, we toured the new hemophilia wing of the hospital. Most impressive! Funded by the Bill Clinton Foundation, it was amazing to think that just 10 years ago, there was barely any care at all for patients with hemophilia: no factor, little training, certainly no place to call their own. But one thing the DR did have was dedicated people, like Haydee and Mecho, and also doctors Joanne Travers and Rosa Nieves.

Camp was just 20 minutes away at a lush and beautiful location in San Cristobal. Today’s agenda was settling in, some athletic and team building games on the basketball court by Raphael, a volunteer phys. ed teacher, arts and crafts, lunch and a lecture by a dentist, which was actually informative and a lot of fun.

We also took the opportunity to interview some of the campers to update their profiles for Save One Life. I won’t lie to you: not everything is happy and rosy in the DR. Too many children, far too many, are crippled, especially the teens, but even some of the younger ones. There are many reasons for that, which I’ll try to share tomorrow (if I can blog).

This is a special camp for us. Save One Life raised enough funds last year to provide 50% of camp funding. We have provided almost all the factor. But most of all, I witness that all those boy I met when they were eight years old, are now young men, returning as counselors, ready to help the next generation. I know I am getting old when I gasp at their height, their maturity, their potential now being realized. Where did those little boys go? Now we marvel at the younger boys, just learning about leaving home, socializing with other with hemophilia and experiencing camp for the first time. Whatever the language or culture, one thing for certain about hemophilia, camp is a winning program for all.

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