Saturday, November 23, 2013

There's a Plane Waiting for Me

Good Bye Guyana, My Students and Friends

I will be headed North for a visit with sister Kathy and Brother Tony for a week in Florida and then home to my wife, Anne, and family in Ontario.  I will write a final blog for this tour after I get home, but for now I will leave you with my students' farewell.

Thanks for reading all term...  John

Sidney Poitier never had it so good!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dennis' Reflections on Volunteering in Guyana

Opening thoughts  . . .

As I sit here writing these opening words, surrounded by all the familiar creature comforts of our home in Massachusetts that we have spent a lifetime accumulating, the powerful awareness washes over me that the body and the psyche were not designed to make the massive transition from a third world country to our middle class US lifestyle in just 48 short hours. To go from shorts and sandals one day, to shoes, long pants, jacket, winter hat (layers and layers) the next, is a leap; to go from 90+ degrees to around 30 degrees in a few hours, is a shock to the system; to go from litter and garbage strewn on the sidewalks, grass and streets at will, and where the stench and smells of their accumulation is inescapable … to our little town where litter is gratefully hard to find and garbage finds its way to the dump; to go from pervasive poverty and pain to a place where the accumulation of wealth and the goal “of a better tomorrow” have some semblance of hope to be achieved and are not just pipe dreams and a fantasy world . . . and on and on. Sitting here, having been there, has an air of unreality to it right now. “Business as usual” isn’t working inside me. How can my system adjust to that 12 hour plane ride that separates night and day, poverty and wealth, hope and despair??!! Time will tell.

Just a little older, eh?
In some ways this trip for me has been 48 years in the making. For it was in 1965 that I first entered the Maryknoll Missionary Fathers college seminary in Illinois, planning to spend my life as a Catholic priest in the mission field. It was then and there too, that I met a kind and sassy Brooklyn boy named “Jo’c” (John O’Connor by birth, though no one called him that except the principle whom he visited often!). I am so grateful that our friendship has withstood the test of time, change and the challenges of growth and differences, and particularly grateful for how hard Jo’c worked and planned to help me have a wonderful experience teaching and exploring with him in Guyana for the past three weeks. 
From here on, a few reflections on my time in Guyana as I journaled them (through letters home) during my stay. 

“Don’t Glamorize”                                                                        Oct. 23, 2013

Dear Maggie:
A few observations from a 2 1/2 hour walk I just returned from -- during "5 o'clock traffic hour" in downtown Georgetown -- amidst the thousands of people speeding around on foot and in cars, buses and cabs, I was the ONLY white guy to be found; I was also the ONLY guy in shorts to be seen; I was also the ONLY dude wearing sunglasses or a baseball hat .... to say that I "stood out in the crowd" and drew 10,000 glances, is an understatement!! Luckily I didn't get too lost, because in the dark I would have REALLY stood out! But their friendliness dispelled most fears that tended to surface because of our differences.

I have developed a new commandment that I wanted to share with you (and all) ---  "Thou shalt not glamorize me, where I am, or what I'm doing" !! I am still the same 'ole incompetent/sometimes more competent smuck that I've always been. Imperfections or abilities know no geography. 

And so whereas I appreciate the "pride in you" that you and others have expressed, I don't want it to diminish where you are and what you're doing. Life's work is tough wherever we find ourselves! 

Just had a little supper we brought up from the cafeteria and ate in the room (cold macaroni and cheese, potato salad and something green and was still moving, I think). Now I need to get ready for tomorrow's classes and it is quickly approaching my 9 p.m. bedtime. 

“Nighttime in Guyana”                                                                 Oct. 24, 2013

"Great minds think along the path", they say, Maggie. The title of your email to me last night "Good Night" happens to be what I wanted to write something about at midnight, then 1 and 2 .... then at 3, 4, 5 a.m. !

I remember when I would glibly say "Good Night" or "Sleep well" or "Have a good night's sleep" or "Don't let the bed bugs bite" (the later will need to taken up at a future date!) .... then old age set in!! With prostate and bladder issues to contend with, a "good" night would be getting awakened out of a sound sleep "only" 3 or 4 times a night. Then came Guyana!

After five nights here so far, here is my “new normal” ... getting into bed about 9 p.m. after my cold shower (remember there is only one knob in the shower... that drips about 50 drops a minute -- pretty sad that I'm now counting drips!), the sweat is pouring off me by the time my head hits the pillow. My puddle and I settle in for the marathon night. Of course I have my two salvific fans taking dead aim at me for the night -- but what first feels like a respite from the heat, suddenly is more like a billowing furnace.

Now the "wall" that divides Jo'c and me is more like a dividing wall -- with no separate ceilings. So if one of us has a light on, the reflection is seen off our common high ceiling.  We may be taking our snoring duet onto "America' Got Talent" ... whoops, except he's Canadian.

Then there the other chorus of sounds of the night ... like the trucks, cars, buses, cabs with their horns ALWAYS blaring, traveling down a busy main street RIGHT outside my window, of course. I've been teaching myself some new swear words during those sleepless hours!!!

Then there is the rain ... an anticipated welcome relief, but oh no-- it gets hotter. I was awakened by this crashing sound only to realize that the tropical rain was pounding down -- onto our TIN roof!!! The noise was deafening and I found myself longing for Jo'c to snore even louder!!

So after battling snoring, traffic, torrential rains, I think that must be it. Dozing in and out, I then hear (like in a dream) this bellowing, rhythmic chanting coming from somewhere other than my head. Of course, it's from the huge police academy right outside my window on the busy street with all that traffic. They are doing their 5 a.m. outdoor marching drills ... and making sure the whole neighborhood knows it!

“Pictures Lie”                                                                                Oct. 26, 2013

Thank you so much for remembering that today is the anniversary of my ordination, and for your 'morning note' of my sermon title on that Reformation Sunday 38 years ago, "You Are Accepted".  So thanks to you, Maggie, and many others in my life, for putting up with my multitude of imperfections, and continuing to accept me over the years.
38 years ago...
"Now I am a Psychiatrist"
Yesterday was as full, busy, and diverse a day as I've had, and trying to capture it does not seem even remotely possible. But I'll try to paint a bit of a picture with words, knowing that like pictures they are at best inadequate. They are one dimensional and "uni-sensory" and the senses of touch, smell, hearing even taste are conspicuously absent (this is huge in pictures of Guyana, where the oppressive heat and the powerful odors dominate the landscape). 

The destination was the town of Suddie on the northwest shore of the Atlantic about 2+ hours from our hospital in Georgetown. Getting up at 5 a.m., we traveled 45 min. to a couple mile long pontoon bridge that crosses the Demarara River (a very shaky ride across the river with thousands of other cars traveling their morning commute on it too). Then it was on to catch a ride to cross the Essequibo River in these very “primitive” wooden boats that would carry us through a series of islands, and over some 'testy' waters, to the unseen shores ahead. The boat drivers are fearless, and know that 'time is money', so their idea of a safe travel speed and ours were quite different. I kept reading the many painted sayings on the wall of the canopied craft (“God is the Greatest”, “Love everyone”, “Live a good life”, etc., oh yeah, and “We are not responsible for” ....), wishing I had brought my rosary beads and gone to confession  ... while constantly humming “Just a closer walk with Thee” !!! But with water spraying from every direction from our wake (I didn't dare say that word out there!), we finally arrived in what felt like a eternity (aka, 45 min. later), hugging the land, praying to all the major religions that Guyana has represented in it (throwing in a couple others for good measure), grateful to have survived . . .  and oblivious to fact that that also was the ONLY way back!!!

We then got into another crazy (a requirement to get a license here) driver’s cab, racing off at the speed of light, comforted only by the idea that we would at least now die on Terra Firma (and we think Boston is bad!!). We arrived at Suddie Public Hospital (rustic does not begin to describe it!!), to have about 75 people waiting there (from many miles away and for many hours) under a tin lean-to (remember it's over 90 degrees with humidity between 80-90) in order to talk with the 3 doctors with whom we were traveling. Some of the cases were beyond sad, and my helpless went into overdrive as I went around talking with those waiting, and trying to provide some sense of compassion and empathy -- but inside feeling totally useless. I wanted to do something concrete tangible to improve their lives this day, not be the vague, impotent therapist who spouts pious platitudes and knows that changing someone else didn't come with my diploma. ....  
At the start of the clinic, everyone got introduced.
Then I sat with Yul (a man of about 55 yrs. old, though his body looked so much older) and listened with tears in my eyes to how he had been beaten up on the street within an inch of his life about 10 years ago, suffered significant brain trauma and vision loss, has been barely employable for most jobs, trying to raise his teenage son on his own, has scars from the beating permanently visible all over his face (and probably many other unseen places) ....  Then he has the nerve to say to me, "but today is a new day, and the doctor has come for us (one time per month at best), and here I am talking to a kind man from the United States who is asking me about MY life .... man, isn't life a good thing!!!!". Shame on you, Dennis, for thinking otherwise.

The Doctor is IN
...asking me about my life. Isn't life a good thing.

It is humbling to be here where gratitude and appreciation abound, and bitterness and envy are infrequent visitors. As I have aged these past years and my athletic body feels like it is fast fading, my anger frustration response has lead me nowhere ... so I have intentionally worked to focus on a spirit of gratitude each time I get on my bike for a ride, to appreciate what I CAN do this day not on how it is slower or harder than the days before. But this is truly hard work for me -- important, but hard. Here, like with Yul, it seems to happen like we breath ... naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly. I admire that. Against these odds, I admire it all the more.

“My saddest day”                                                                     Oct. 28, 2013

Today we got up early to go down to the nursing school on the hospital compound we live and work on, to meet up with our 17 students for a "field trip". The destination was the town of New Amsterdam to visit Guyana's only psychiatric hospital for the day (known by the locals as "the Berbice Mad House"). I thought I was prepared for it, by a great deal of experience in working at Fairview Hospital in Salem, Oregon and Fernald State Hospital in Massachusetts (the oldest hospital for mental retardation mental illness in the country) in my early years, and visiting sundry others over the years. Well, sit down for this --- "I was WRONG, dead wrong"!!!

What we saw there defies description, and so I have few words coming to me right now. But I will say that what I did see made me embarrassed to be a part of the human race. That we can warehouse people in such a fashion, and hide them away so that no one knows who they are, where they are, how they are doing, is a travesty. And to bring a smile to their face or show comfort and compassion for a few moments, does little to soothe my sadness -- which is just as well, because if it were that easy, it would feel cheap.

There is saying out there somewhere about "Tears are good for your soul". If that be true, my soul is getting much attention, because I can't contain all the tears right now. So I must stop, and try to find words at a future time.

“The ‘H’ word”                                                                      Oct. 31, 2013

Today is the first year nursing student's traditional "Bake Sale" to raise money for a special celebration that they have in December. They take this very seriously and work very hard to prepare their own special dishes to sell to the hospital staff and visitors. Of course, being one of their teachers now (they call me "Rev #2"), I can't be playing any favorites, so I just HAVE to try a little of everyone's creation! I have expanded my culinary horizons here in Guyana (hopefully not my waist size too) and have often ventured outside my USA comfort zone to explore the Guyanese cuisine. I know I mentioned my new philosophy for eating, "if it's not still moving, I'll try it" ... well, that may be a little liberal even for me to say!! So far I've spent about $1,200 at the Sale (that's only $6.00 US) -- but don't have heart failure, I'll still fit in the plane, and I think I'm done ... and done-in.

But this leads me to some thoughts I have had about the Guyanese people in general and these young (18-22 ish year old) nursing students in particular.  A word came to me on that first Sunday morning that I arrived (having already visited Boston and NYC along the way) and was immediately felt from the cab driver that took me to the hospital (1 hr. drive), as he warmly greeted me and talked the whole way ... only stopping, when he pulled over to a roadside fruit stand and told the owner something in the distance -- the owner then pulling out a machete and proceeding to carve up a coconut from his stand. The driver put a straw in the hole the man had made, and then handed it to me saying, "Welcome to Guyana, my new friend. I hope your stay is a good one!" Trying to at least pay for his kindness, I quickly halted as he said, "It's a gift -- no pay for a gift here."
This is the same Sandra
who delighted in scaring Bev

The same word came to me as our cab entered the gated hospital compound, and the woman "security" (not much security really here) guard warmly welcomed me to Mercy Hospital. I have seen Sandra everyday since, and we rarely pass without a joke, quip or story of some kind. She makes me feel at home in my unfamiliar surroundings.

And then that word came bellowing my way on the very first day that I went into the nursing student's classroom at 7:45 a.m. They begin their day (always!) with "morning song". They sing and clap with such enthusiasm and sincerity through songs like "Father Abraham", "S-a-l-v-a-t-i-o-n", "Amen", and others, and with a gusto that is so palpable and contagious, that our theological differences evaporate for me, and I sense profoundly "the tie that binds"! 
My Baptist Training pays off in the hand clapping singing.
At the end all hold hands in the circle we have formed, and a spontaneous prayer for the journey of the approaching day is offered. This first day of mine, they ask me to pray.  Now this has often happened back home, and I can sometimes feel like I'm the token minister-guy who you're suppose to ask to pray -- but this first day I felt (and continue to feel this) that they are saying, "Welcome to our gathering; our home is your home!"

Then there was the bus driver who had taken a group of us (seven Canadian and American professionals) to visit a hospital in Suddie, about  2 hours from Georgetown. After a full day there, we were hungry and talking about trying to find a restaurant. "Nonsense" replied the driver whom I had NEVER met before, and he then pulled out his cell phone and made a quick call. We ended up 30 minutes later at his Hindu family's home. They were celebrating an annual feast (Puja) where all their friends, neighbors, community members -- and evidently us!! -- were invited to drop over during the day to share in the food feast they had prepared. So seven of us foreigners arrive on their doorstep, to be treated to a medley of foods as if they were awaiting our arrival! For the next hour and a half we ate, visited, were shown their ducks, chickens, fruit trees, flower garden, etc., and left filled with so much more than

 Many other stories have blessedly come my way... but for now, back to THE word. It is the "H" word. No, not the "Hot" word that I continue to complain about on a regular basis. And no, it's not "Hell" which I now fear more than ever-- because I don't do heat well at all, and I figure eternity is just slightly longer than my three weeks here. The "H" word that has so impressed me is (drum roll....) HOSPITALITY. Now many have shown me hospitality in my life, for which I am deeply grateful. But here it was instantaneous, and has been pervasive. People are exceptionally polite and respectful, and very rare is the time when someone passes me in the hospital compound or even on the street, that there aren't words of greeting and acknowledgement. Granted this US white guy stands out in a crowd, but they do it with each other too. In a land where horrendous stories abound, and poverty and pain are pervasive, kindness and hospitality are alive and well. Irony or blessing?  You're call. I know I have made mine.

“Relief . . . No Relief”                                                                    Nov. 5, 2013

Which brings me to the realization that this is both an appropriate metaphor AND real life here. There is NO RELIEF here -- from the heat, humidity, torrential downpours ... or from poverty, pain, unemployment, corruption, garbage, congestion, noise, danger, illness ... and on. Relief is a concept very few can afford (the rich or powerful, maybe). These are not temporary problems that come and go like our seasons. They are the perpetual state of affairs, that people today have inherited from their forebears, and now whose children are also destined to have as the reality of their lives. True some will "escape"  (aka, emigrate ...  to Caribbean, the US, Canada, etc.) seeking jobs, a livable income, security; but they are the VERY few amidst the 700,000 people that inhabit this country about the size of Oregon (and about 10 times the size of Massachusetts) who have a realistic hope of "a better tomorrow". The rest are "predestined" (and I don't use that word lightly) by the shear magnitude and pervasiveness of the systemic problems that enslave them, and by the powerful and corrupting forces that hold the keys to a better tomorrow. I thought I knew what it was like to feel small and helpless in the US with our self-serving government officials and long entrenched, endemic struggles ... but Guyana trumps even the Republicans (and some of the Democrats to be "fair"!). Relief is a luxury that "does not compute" for the Guyanese.

This became viscerally and poignantly clear to me during my visit to St. John Bosco Orphanage for boys this week. It was a hot day (go figure!!), but the sky looked particularly ominous. Then the torrential rains came, driving the 40 or so boys (ranging in age from about 4 - 16, mostly on the younger side though) under the covered shelter (with no sides), which is about 30 feet x 40 and that was mostly taken up with large wooden tables. An attendant was trying to keep all the boys inside (have you ever tried to herd cats!!), but wasn't having much luck. Then the sheer force of nature came to her assistance, and blew most of the stragglers in! 
John has the "same" picture from 2002!
For the next two hours .... about 15+ of the 3 and 4 year olds fell asleep in a beautiful and pathetic line on the tables, huddled close for companionship and connection; a few older boys were hitting a cricket ball and creating their own "ball field” in the maize of people that weren't mercifully asleep. It was an accident(s) waiting to happen -- but I realized that I haven't lost all my reflexes!! -- and the others seemed sadly oblivious to the dangers, and were just running around in utter chaos.

Some action HAD to be taken -- for my sanity, if not their safety. So another volunteer (Donna Joy) and I dragged out some board games, and we valiantly tried to "herd cats" and get them "settled down" (a completely misguided concept!). I had a group of eight and the game I had was "Snakes and Ladders".
There are Rules...  There are Rules...

With no concept of taking turns, little ability to add up the numbers on the dice, to count the proper number of spaces ... let alone in a sequence that was anything but random and self-serving ... it was a MOST interesting experience. My complete and utter frustration with the game and the chaos around, was exceeded only by the smiles on their faces and the appreciation in their eyes. Few are the times when such a ratio (1 to 8) or structured playfulness, are experienced in their lives. They hunger to know that they are more than a part of a mass of others who share their plight. They thirst for a connection that affirms who they are and gets a glimpse of the unrealized potential they hold inside.

After a couple hours a bell rang, all activity abruptly stopped, and like lemmings they quickly got in a line (smallest in front to tallest in the back), and waited impatiently to go into their common "dining area" for a donated dinner of rice and curry that was given by a neighboring family. I humbly stood in the background listening to them “Say Grace” for their meager meal, and sadly realizing that this picture is repeated three times a day, seven days a week, 365 a year ... if they are lucky. I will NEVER have another Thanksgiving without great guilt AND gratitude for the fate that has shaped our differing lives.

The bus ride home was reflective, as has been the time since. The depression I feel about their fate and future is palpable, harsh and deep. And I welcome this feeling, for I have long since learned that there are some situations in which depression is not only inevitable, but normal. Too often, I find that many are quick to think of depression in diagnostically pathological terms (it's a bad thing that should be "fixed" and gotten rid of), when in fact it is the natural, human, healthy, response to certain situations. My depression is not just at the current deplorable conditions (admittedly, my “new-be, foreigner” judgment), but that they will grow up into a world which will still not welcome them, still not give them the refuge and sanctuary they deserve, still not nurture their potential and foster a sense of hopefulness and possibility. Is this really that different from what we see in parts of Greenfield, Maggie, or in those with whom you work in Boston, Emily, or others of you in your communities ... probably not. But today, here, its my time and place to take in the reality around me, and to get an up close and personal look at the lives we painfully see everywhere that there is poverty, inequality, disregard, and abuse of power. And so I write ... and hope you are still reading.

RELIEF here today? Not in the weather or in the conditions of so many of the Guyanese. In a week now, I will be home to experience relief from both the heat and my meager surroundings here. For the Bosco boys, there is no sign of relief. Relief died along time ago for most of them. This breaks my heart and burdens my soul .... and I'm grateful for both.

But I'm repeating my "therapeutic commandment" as I linger in the hard, dark places -- "There is no such thing as one feeling!" So as I peel back the layers of the "onion" of depression, I'm beginning to find sadness, hurt, anger, fear, gratitude, appreciation, wonder, curiosity, compassion, love and, of course, the “big M” word .... MYSTERY. Always more to discover.
Catching Some Breeze

Blessings to all,
Dennis  (aka, “Rev. 2”)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Whamning Squaddy?

Thanks for the Assistance and Friendship

Dennis is in the air as I write, heading north and homeward to Greenfield, Massachusetts.   He did get to say goodbye -several times.  Here is his "speech" at the end of our last Problem Based Learning Day.
[I hope you like the video as it took me hours trying to post it.]

It was strange in many ways having Dennis here and not simply because he is strange .....    I don't want to say too much about his time here because he promised to be the Guest Editor for the next blog on November 16th, but .....  you can learn a lot from someone's toothpaste.  Can you imagine trying to live with someone who uses a fortified paper clip to keep his tube looking neat, rather than the free spirit squeezing of a mature male?   Don't miss next week's post!

Divali Festival and Parade

This is the Hindu Festival of Lights - in many ways similar to festivals shared by many cultures/religions around the world.   The festival's main figures are Lakshmi and her brother Ganesha who is portrayed as an elephant  (see pictures of the floats).  Lakshmi is my favourite as she has blessed me with many of her qualities - wealth, prosperity (both material and spiritual), fortune, and the embodiment of beauty.  I may have to offer more prayers for the wealth part.     One of the Bajans (Hymns) sung during the festival is one that could be sung by many other faith groups in the world:

Asato maa Sadgamaya
Tamaso maa Jyotirgamaya
Mrityorma Amritam gamaya
Om Shantih, Shantih, Shanti

Lead me
From untruth to truth
From darkness to light
From death to immortality.

(No, it is not Ganesha.)
The crowds  are huge and the parade goes for miles.
While Guyana is by almost all standards a developing country, it seems to me to be way ahead of the North in its tolerance and acceptance of other faiths.   While I have been here the country has also celebrated the holiday of Eid Mubarak (an Islamic Festival), and the country is already geared up for Christmas...  The religious leaders have been a combined voice for peace for many years.    All are welcome to participate in all the festivals, including flying kites on Easter Monday.

I don't want to get too romantic about all the tolerance and equality of faiths, as most Guyanese of whatever faith do not know much, if anything, about the other's religion... and yet they are friendly and hospitable to all. It's not totally different from North America:  there people don't really know anything of another's faith but they fear them. I guess I like the Guyanese choice better.

More Canadians
 Over the years there have been dedicated lay volunteers from the Scarboro Fathers; it just seems this year that I have had more contact with them [though Sylvia Wilvert was around in 2011].  This year there has been Donna Joy Tai and Beverly Trach.  If you are considering volunteering a year of your time, both Bev and Donna say that the programme is a good one - community and support.

Beverly and Donna having dinner at
The Princess, Taju's Fine Dining Establishment in Durban

Proprietors of The Princess,
my friends: Allison and Taju 

Double Beverley's at St Ann's

Actually, Bev was here in 2011 and working at St. Ann's with the girl's homework almost every afternoon.  (Wow, I get there usually once a week and am tired.)  Before that she was with Scarboro in Brazil, and now one of her main responsibilities is ministering to the Brazilian population here in Georgetown.

Donna is a newish volunteer as she came down in the Spring of 2013 and has signed on for only one year with an option of more.   I first met her when I had scheduled my students to go on the Hospice Ward at Mercy and they told me that there was this "old nun" leading hymns.   Well, the nurses had it partially right: she does come to the hospital (I think twice a week).   And she is a daily volunteer at the Boys' Home in Plaisance, John Bosco.

Dennis explaining to Donna at Bosco,
"I was that small once.

Donna going incognito at Bosco

Donna's main work is running games
 of chance at local Church Fairs.

St Ann's Photo Contest

The first [and maybe last] Father John's Photo Contest has closed  and all the Finalists have been chosen by me.  They are all posted on the walls at St Ann's in the four categories: Girls at Play, Girls at Study, Girls at Work and Action Shots.  I am arranging to have special outside judges -as I do not want to be responsible for the sad faces of the girls who don't win!  The winner in every category will receive an MP3 Player and everyone else will get nothing!   Yes, I have already heard from the girls that it is really unfair .  Some of the more creative Social Justice girls have told me that every one of them should get an MP3 Player even if they didn't enter a photo because didn't I think they were all special?    Nice try; they have brilliant legal careers ahead!  I was going to have a "vote-online" winner as well but I wasn't tricky enough to figure out how to do it!

My Nursing Students

I have made another life-saving change to the PBL schedule and philosophy .....  I have combined several pages into one.   When I counted the days remaining before I leave I found I could either omit a whole problem, compact several pages into one day's work, or delay my return until I properly finished the pages.   Well, the last one would have involved my death, so that was the worst option.  Now with that gone, I chose the lesser of the two evils .....  So instead of only researching two questions, they need to do three questions!  The students seemed to like it as they responded with a huge outcry ..... which I took to be positive.

We also had the annual Rite of Passage to the Georgetown Public Hospital Pathology Department and the autopsies.  Dennis joined us as he wanted to see what had changed since Dennis and I had seen our first autopsy 45 years ago at Boston City Hospital.   I can still remember the man's name on the autopsy table - Jim Bishop.   It must say something since I can't remember any names today.   I'll let Dennis do the reflecting on his experience..  Stay tuned til next week.

Outside huddled together waiting for the experience to begin.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Peter Puts Pen to Keyboard ...and Remembers Guyana

The Difference a Year Makes

Just over one year ago, I knew about Rev. John O'Connor by reputation alone.  I knew he was an ordained Lutheran pastor and a former chaplain.  I knew that he had an interest in doing ministry in Guyana- some kind of ministry.  But the one time we communicated by email, he was in the process of moving back to Ayr, ON from Nova Scotia.  We agreed to get in contact with each other when things were more settled.

About one year ago, John and I finally met for coffee.  He shared about his chaplaincy work in the past and about his annual teaching experiences at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Guyana.  About three months every year for the past 10 years!  I shared about my one trip to Guyana, representing the ELCiC at the 2011 annual church convention of the ELCG.  I also shared about being in ministry at Maranatha Lutheran in Waterloo and about being a family physician working on the Specialized Mental Health Unit at Freeport Hospital.  I tried, somewhat ineffectively, to explain my odd dual calling to both ministry and medicine.  We talked briefly thereafter about the possibility of doing some work together in Guyana.  My response was muted -- where was the possibility to make a lasting difference??

In February, John and Anne joined Maranatha for our annual Black History celebration.  We didn't have much time to connect in person that day, but I believe that you can tell a lot about a person by how they lead a service and by how they preach.  Wasn't sure what John thought after that day, but was pleased to be invited to go for coffee again...

By spring, 2012, conversations with medical colleagues at Freeport led to a first meeting of our current Guyana group- Sujay Patel( Freeport psychiatrist), Ram Kalap ( Guyanese born chaplain at Homewood), John, and myself.  We talked about the idea of a medical contact-making trip to Guyana sometime in the next year- most likely when John would be back in Guyana between Sept. and November.  We talked about a needs assessment and we talked about meeting people.  We talked about who might support a trip like this with more than kind words and best wishes.  We talked about the realities of family life in Canada and the need to plan a trip only if we would truly follow through on a commitment to go.   We were blessed to receive concrete support for this trip both from Bishop Michael Pryse of the Eastern Synod and from Homewood Health Centre in Guelph.

In September, Sujay and I booked our tickets together.  Within a week or so, Brenna and Ram had also committed to an October trip to Guyana.  The Fellowship was established!  But what would we find and what might possibly develop?    Read on!

If you have followed this blog over the past two weeks, you will know exactly how much has been accomplished between Oct 23 and Oct. 30.  Thanks to John and to Dr. Bhiro Harry, we have safely explored Georgetown, Suddie, New Amsterdam, and the village of Fyrish.  We have visited the Georgetown Public Hospital,, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, the Suddie Hospital, and the National Psychiatric Hospital.

Brenna brought her Second Year
Class's Mascot - Flat Stanley 

Can you find Flat Stanley?
 We have met and shared in mutual reflections on mental health care in Guyana with the first year nursing class at St. Joseph Mercy hospital.  We have connected with Pastor Moses, president of the ELCG at Calvary, and with Pr. Vivian  (and her husband, Eric, fellow Canucks from Lunenburg, NS) at Ebenezer Lutheran in New Amsterdam.  We worshipped at Ebenezer on Reformation Sunday in the 270th year of the existence of the ELCG!  And we learned that it was at the 2012 Closing Service of the ES Biennial Convention ( hosted by Maranatha at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary with guest preacher, Pr. Paul Moonu, president of the ELCG) that Pr. Vivian first heard her call to serve in Guyana!

Do Ministers of Health Give Official blessings?
Canadians [plus a lone American] meet with Minister of Health Hon Dr. Bheri S. Ramsaran.  [l-r Dr. Bhiro Harry, John, Rev. Dr. Dennis LeBlanc, Brenna Patel, Dr. Sujay Patel, Minister, Rev. Ram Kalap, Dr. Shanti Singh, Director for the National AIDS Programme Secretariat and Rev. Dr. Peter Kuhnert  
Today, our final full day in Guyana, we met with the Minister of Health, Minister Ramsarran.  He talked passionately about his hopes for developing the mental health care system in Guyana.  He talked about the opportunity of having 100 medical graduates repatriating to Guyana within the next year after training in Cuba, and the need for someone to guide them in nurturing a passion for and skill in providing excellent mental health care.  He talked about the possibility of future partnerships  and invited us to contact him when we had more details to provide.  This afternoon, we met with a reporter from the national television channel, NCN, Ms. Samuels.  She had first approached us with the idea of an interview after worship at Ebenezer!  The ministry gave its blessing and the interview occurred today.  Sujay spoke eloquently about opportunities for partnership and for training family physicians and nurse practitioners and for bringing allied health professionals to train local trainers in Guyana.

Following the meeting with the Minister, the team was still exchanging ideas
in the waiting room of the Ministry of Health
Autographs are now $100 each.
Tonight, we enjoyed our final meal together with Dr. Bhiro Harry, with John and his old classmate Dennis, and as the Fellowship quartet. We reminisced about the amazing and blessed events of the week and we began to dream about what might yet be.
TV Stars in the making.  We all gathered
to see the Canadians on the Six O'Clock NCN News

If you can't wait till the full length movie comes to a theater near you:  Click Here.

Good bye... till we meet again.
What difference can a year make?  A mere 365 days?  Some would say not a lot.  Of course, others would say the entire world can change.  It certainly has for us.  How will this adventure continue?  Today, I can hardly say.  But then, of course, that's the story for next year.

Thanks to you, John, for the opportunity to guest-blog for you.  You and Bhiro have been gracious and thoughtful hosts and exceptional planners.  I am grateful.  Our team is grateful.  

Thanks for being a blessing.    Peter Kuhnert

Peter Kuhnert is a Medical Doctor and Lutheran Pastor.  Back in Ontario he is the pastor of Maranatha Lutheran Church in Kitchener and the medical doctor on a specialized geriatric mental health programme at Grand River Hospital. 

"Some Unknown Reason"
A student reflects on her visit to the "Berbice Madhouse"
Upon entering, I saw several persons going about their daily routine as they talked to themselves, which at first seemed very amusing until it actually hit me that these people are really ill and society has shunned them because of an illness which is beyond anyone’s control.   As my tutors and fellow batchmates enter the first ward on the hospital ground, I started to panic for some unknown reason.   Rev Dennis, introduced me to a patient by the name of xxxx who was very wonderful, she told me about her morning and was packing to leave the premises  as she indicated that her relatives are coming to take her home.  When xxx left me, I stood in the corner and observed every detail of each patient within my view and tears came to my eyes as I stood helpless just looking on, how these patients lost their husbands, siblings, children and friends all because of a mental disorder.