Special delivery: medicine by boat

Global Outreach | Jennifer Janssen
By Nicole Endres

Mission: Bringing medical services to indigenous people living in remote areas
Location: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Photo of Jennifer JanssenWhen you live on a remote island and get sick — and the nearest hospital may be hours of travel and several months’ worth of salary away — even what developed societies would consider easily treatable illnesses can bring dire consequences.

Unless someone comes to you, of course. Last summer, second-year medical student Jennifer Janssen spent a month with a Floating Doctors team that brought medical and dental care and medications to indigenous people throughout the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

“It’s pretty crazy to think how a small amount of antibiotic or medication can completely change someone’s life expectancy,” says Janssen, a 2015 Judd Fellow, whose experience with Floating Doctors was funded by the Walter H. Judd Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation and additional funds from the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, with support from individual donors.

Janssen mostly helped to take patients’ vital signs and health histories before they saw the doctor on duty. She shadowed the doctor, as well. “We tried to encourage simple hand washing, as many infected bites, scabies, GI worms, and high maternal and infant mortality could be prevented with sanitation,” she says.

Just like it sounds, the international Floating Doctors organization relies on boats to bring volunteers and donated medical supplies to and from these isolated areas. In Janssen’s case, that boat was a cayuco — “essentially a massive, dug-out tree with a 15-horsepower motor on it,” she says. “We stacked in boxes upon boxes of the equipment we needed.”

It was a sight to be seen, Janssen says, especially by the local children. She took the photo above as her team was getting ready to leave after a clinic day.

“The kids actually get in their little canoes and follow us out as far as they can,” she says. “They’ll wave from the dock or jump in the water and swim after us and wave, depending on how safe it is. This little girl had jumped in and grabbed a spare canoe and was waiting to follow us out.

“Kids will be kids, no matter where you are.”  

More photos from Jennifer Janssen's time in Panama

Published on April 5, 2016

(Photo: Jennifer Janssen)

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The Medical Bulletin is seeking compelling photos and stories featuring U of M Medical School student, alumni, or faculty experiences abroad. Selected submissions will be published in future issues of the Medical Bulletin. For more information or to submit your photo or story, email managing editor Nicole Endres at nendres@umn.edu.