Last year as I was traveling along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, en route to Santa Marta from Cartagena, I passed through an area that struck me by its level of poverty. On either side of the highway stood communities of shacks made of corrugated metal, cardboard or other materials that I’m sure were discarded by others. A few miles later we passed through the congested town of Ciénaga, packed with vendors, motorcycles, and bicycles with carts behind (ciclotaxis) carrying people here and there. It was a place that I remembered well after traveling around Colombia, even though I only experienced it through a bus window.
I have known about the medical projects in Colombia run by Medical Ministry International for several years. Dear friends of mine have been traveling with this group to Colombia for decades and going with them has been on my wish list for as long as they’ve been telling me about it. For two weeks this January, I was finally able to join them. As we pulled into Ciénaga the first day, it felt distantly familiar. This time I was not driving beyond the poverty-stricken barrios and bustling commercial center that I had seen last year. I was going right into the heart of it.
We were a group of 70 – Americans, Colombians and Canadians. Many in the group were doctors, others were translators, still others came along to fill in wherever there was need. With the help of ~70 additional Colombians from a local church, a school compound was transformed into a clinic. At a nearby hospital, an operating room was modified to accommodate multiple patients simultaneously. Our focus was eye health. Even on this first day, we began seeing people in the clinic, screening their vision and scheduling surgeries for the next day.
Some came for reading glasses, others for better prescription glasses. Moms brought their kids for screening. Some came with diabetes and glaucoma; others with undiagnosed conditions. Many came with cataracts and pterygia, both of which are prevalent in the area due to the intensity of the sun coupled with its reflection on the water in this community whose livelihoods closely associated with the water. Children and a few adults came with strabismus (crossed eyes) and several arrived who were missing an eye completely. For them, the question, “How do I look?” carries much weight, since their appearance causes ridicule and unacceptance and can prevent employment or the prospect of marriage, in addition to making them not look as they might desire.
Every morning when we arrived at the school, a line stretched down the street, people expectantly and patiently waiting. In my daily life I have not given much thought to eye issues, so I was surprised a the sheer number of people who came, some having traveled great distances, to seek help in this area. By the time we closed down the clinic and operating room, after ten days of being open, over 5700 people had been served.
I had come with the group to serve as the photographer. While others spent hours each day in one room, testing long- or short-range vision, fitting glasses, or performing surgeries, I flowed in and out of each room, witnessing special moments that occurred at each station. I met the people who waited in line outside, heard their stories, and visited some of their homes.
As I saw more of this area that last year I had passed by, the people of Ciénaga inched their way into my heart. Most do not have material possessions or even what many would consider basic comforts. But the people I met, young and old, are brave and generous with what they do have. They stood many hours in line, waiting and not necessarily knowing what to expect. Those that came to the hospital for surgery faced lying on an operating table, awake, as people operated on their eye, speaking a language they did not understand. Every day, as people left the clinic and hospital, they hugged those that had helped them, gave gifts (usually jewelry they were wearing or something they’d made) as tokens of appreciation, and lifted up praises to God – – whether their condition was fixed or not. In their vulnerability there was strength, and in their faith, hope.
For the next few blog posts, I will be highlighting aspects of my time in Ciénaga, the people who came for help from the medical team, and the communities in the area.