Jan. 4, 2009 - Day 1
The flight to Houston this morning was scheduled for 6:40 AM, meaning I had to get up at 4 in the morning - quite a feat for a college student on a much-needed winter break. Our crew left Minneapolis later than expected, delayed by the long de-icing process (how I love Minnesota winters!) to embark on what I hoped to be an eye-opening and perhaps, life-changing adventure.
I've always enjoyed plane rides. I like the anticipation of take-off, the soft and gentle lull of the plane as it traverses blue skies, the feeling of being invincible - far from the problems that affect the world below, and the relief of a solid landing. But even more than these simple pleasures, plane rides seem to reinforce my optimistic nature. No matter how dreary the day, the sun is always shining up here - a reminder that no matter what kind of day I'm having or what defeat or shortcoming I'm facing, I can find a way to get through it. Perhaps the key to solving our "problems" simply involves looking at them from a different perspective - seeing the bigger picture. Clouds inevitably get in our way, but we must never forget what is behind them, because when the darkness passes, we can once again renew our hopes for brighter days ahead.
At Houston, we boarded a tiny connecting flight to the Brownsville airport, truly the smallest airport I've ever been in, with all of two terminals. But the weather was wonderful, 80's and sunny - something I will miss when I return to Minnesota in a week or so.
Upon arrival, our group met Dr. Mendoza and the rest of the medical team with students from around the country. After loading up the vans, we were ready to cross the border where vehicles are stopped at a random basis for search and seizure. Ours was one of the lucky few able to experience this intimidating encounter. With a gunman situated in a frighteningly large tank and armed guards standing less than a foot away, none of us had actually been in this type of situation before - except maybe vicariously through TV and movies. Fortunately, there were no major issues, and we were able to acquire entry permits and exchange money fairly smoothly.
On the way to Matamoros, we encountered yet another tank patrolling the streets. Dr. Mendoza attempted to ease our apprehensiveness by explaining the current drug situation in Mexico. Apparently, Mexico's newly inaugurated government, as part of their revitalized effort to crack down on drug cartels, are instituting a much larger military presence, as a way to offer reassurance to the public as much as to intimidate drug traffickers and deter crime - I think it's working, at least in this latter pursuit.
We arrived at Dr. Mendoza's church in Matamoros, where we would spend the night. Our initial meeting was a much more enlightening experience than I could have hoped for. Dr. Mendoza began with "medicine is an art form", a profound statement I began to understand more fully only as the week progressed. He said that the most effective physicians are the ones who utilize all their senses to diagnose and treat a patient. Medicine requires careful and constant observation: everything from how the patient walks to how the patient smells may be critical for an accurate diagnosis. This depiction is worth reflecting on. However much technology improves, at the core, medicine remains very much a human endeavor, with its successful implementation contingent on an unwavering devotion to patient care and an astute intuition acquired through years of experience. Dr. Mendoza commented that during clinic, all we will have available to us will be a simple blood glucose measuring device, blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes - the most basic of medical tools - which led me to think about the important roles advanced technology now plays in health care. There is no denying that technology in the form of impressive machinery and new medications has done much to help the human condition and continues to save lives everyday, but it doesn't always lead to the right diagnosis nor does it always produce the desired outcome. The physician still has to exercise judgment on a case-by-case basis. I can't help but wonder whether the doctors in these rural villages, unable to rely on the constant onslaught of technology, know more about the human body and how to treat its complications than some of the most prestigious doctors working in the most technologically advanced hospitals.
After the meeting, our group of fifteen made the trek over to the nearby and quite modern shopping mall where numerous curious onlookers stared openly at us - I don't think they're used to seeing large groups of American students around. For dinner, I ordered my meal completely in Spanish for the first time. Using a mix of (most likely) grammatically incorrect phrases learned in high school and some exaggerated hand gestures, I was able to get my point across to servers who seemed slightly amused by our group's incompetence. At least the fajitas were delicious, complete with ridiculously spicy salsa and chips - a satisfying end to a long day.