LAKE PLACID - The doctor who founded Mountain Medical Urgent Care 10 years ago recently spent 10 days volunteering for the "Floating Doctors" program, giving medical attention to indigenous communities on the northern coast of Panama.
Dr. Michael Pond calls Lake Placid his home office, even though he spends a lot of time on the road between the Mountain Medical offices in the Olympic village, Saranac Lake, Malone and Massena.
"It's not like a doctor's office in the sense you're thinking," Pond said. "I'm on the move."
Dr. Michael Pond (News photo — Andy Flynn)
Pond was also on the move in Panama from Feb. 10 to 20 as part of the medical teams volunteering for Floating Doctors, a program designed to "reduce the present and future burden of disease in the developing world, and to promote improvements in health care delivery worldwide." During their Panama mission on the Caribbean coast, they are servicing tribal residents of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca. The comarcas in Panama are similar to Indian reservations in the U.S., where indigenous people live. In this case, the Ngabe and Bugle are the tribes that live there, and they are collectively referred to as the Guyami, making up the largest indigenous population in Panama.
This was the first time Pond has volunteered for Floating Doctors, and it was three years in the making. His daughter even spent a few days helping out.
"I like boats and water, so I said, 'That's interesting,'" Pond said.
But this was no ordinary boat and no ordinary mission. A team of 15-18 people - EMTs, nurses, doctors and non-skilled volunteers - travel by boat to remote communities. Many dwellings are built over the swamps, and the team sets up their temporary medical office in a common, open-air building on solid land in the middle of the community. They used school desks that were falling apart and benches, setting up a makeshift facility with a pharmacy.
"Literally, people come out of the jungle," Pond said. "There would be three stations, and then you just see people all day until you get done."
Residents walked to the "office" or paddled there in dugout canoes to get their medical service. Pond took a photo of one family leaving after seeing the doctors.
"The entire family is sitting in their dugout canoe, and I took care of every one of them," Pond said. "And then they paddled back to wherever they were going on the island."
There was no hospital nearby, and the last time the people had medical attention was between three months and a year, maybe longer. There was no running water and no electricity.
"In some sense, it's funny, because there's no Obamacare, no insurances, no preapproval, no labs, no X-rays," Pond said. "It's like practicing medicine 50 years ago."
There was also no privacy for most patients.
"It made abdominal exams and pelvic exams real different," Pond said, adding that if they really needed privacy, they'd set up in someone's house. "And when I say house, I mean kind of an open-air home."
A huge majority of the ailments centered around parasites and worms. People walk around barefoot, and the parasites from the animal feces typically enter their systems through their feet. That was new to Pond. The most serious case was a pelvic inflammatory disease in a woman from a retained placenta during birth.
"'I cut myself with the machete. I fell down. My ankle hurts,'" Pond said of the complaints. "And then usual stuff like coughs, colds and those kind of things."
Because the patients haven't seen a doctor in months, they felt the need to tell the doctors about all their problems over that time period, which made it confusing.
"They come with every problem they've had over that year," Pond said. "They list these problems, and you had to sort through all that with an interpreter, so it was somewhat difficult to figure out what the actual problem was that brought them there that day."
In all, Pond visited three villages. The teams handled day trips and multiple-day trips, depending on the remoteness of the villages. They slept in hammocks with mosquito nets.
The biggest challenge for Pond was the language barrier, as he doesn't speak Spanish and had to communicate through an interpreter.
"The interpreters aren't all medically trained, so they get lost in a tangent about 'the toe hurts' versus abdominal pain," Pond said. "It was frustrating because you're taking much longer to see a patient than you normally should."
Pond had a lot of anxiety before his trip to Panama, mainly because he didn't know what to expect. What he found was a deep and humble appreciation for the medical attention among the indigenous community.
"We are so fortunate to have what we have, and these people are so happy to not have these things," Pond said. "To just see how they lived and worked was eye opening."
Asked what he liked the most, Pond said, "The kids. The kids were just unbelievable, happy, smiling, excited. The people were so happy you were taking care of them."