by Leniza Tineo
“Leniza can basically walk on water. She will definitely be able to help this patient acquire the services he needs.” Imagine sitting in a meeting with a group of physicians, fellow coworkers and supervisors, as someone says these words while referring a patient to you. After a brief moment of panic, I took in what the doctors were saying: We have a patient. He is a 7-year old boy who had meningitis as a baby. He suffered brain damage that left him partially paralyzed. He lost his ability to speak and walk on his own. Currently his father cares for him, but that leaves no time for the father to work and make a living, and so they struggle financially. The father needs assistance to get his son some help.
After listening to those words, I felt like I was willing to learn to walk on water to help this little boy. Hearing about a patient is one thing, but when you meet them in person, it is a completely different story. A few weeks after the meeting I met the little boy and his father in Puerto Plata for an appointment. As I waited, I imagined how they would arrive given the constraints of public transportation in the Dominican Republic. I didn’t have much time to make up stories in my mind because very soon the patient and his father arrived on a motorcycle. The little boy was strapped to his father’s back as the father drove. Although this may seem dangerous, it was their only way of moving around town. The father left the little boy with me as he went to look for motorcycle parking. I tried to console the child as he watched his father leave and thought he was being abandoned. Very soon the father returned and after a brief introduction, we got down to business. We were in Puerto Plata that day trying to connect the patient with free rehabilitation services and health insurance. We first tried applying for insurance, but this was not possible because the patient does not have a birth certificate – not an uncommon problem here in the Dominican Republic. After witnessing the condition of the little boy and the supplications of the father, the insurance representative referred us to the social worker at the public Rehabilitation Center.
The social worker there was also immediately eager to help. She asked the patient’s father a few questions about his living situation and helped verify his eligibility for aid. Quickly she determined that the patient’s family could not afford to pay for the services the little boy desperately needed. She scheduled an appointment with the physician who would determine the type of physical therapy the child needed. As we waited to be seen, the boy’s father told me their story. He wasn’t the patient’s biological father; he was an old neighbor. When the patient was just a baby, his mother used to leave him home alone as she went to work. This man, who was the boy’s neighbor, took it upon himself to care for the little boy and to offer him a better home.
After we were seen by the primary physician, the patient and his father were able to leave the rehab center with a list of upcoming appointments for a psychological evaluation, speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. They were incredibly grateful for all that the Rehabilitation Center and Health Horizons were able to offer them. I was glad that the father had gone out of his way to travel an hour from his city and up the mountain to our clinic just to ask for help. In the end his son didn’t need money or meds. All the father and the child really needed was a person knowledgeable about the local medical system who could make a couple of appropriate referrals, be a guide, and lend a helping hand.
As I reflect on my time in the D.R. working with the families that HHI serves I think about the importance of community in the Dominican Republic. I think about how HHI and the local Rehab Center were able to work together, as one joint community of health providers, to link this family with the help that they need. I think about the child, and I know he is fortunate to have found a neighbor who took on the responsibility of becoming his primary caregiver and advocate for life. I’m glad that through HHI I got to be a part of being in the right place, with the right training, and the right local connections, at the right time, in order to help this father and his son keep on moving forward successfully in the same way that they always have — together.