The Gift of Giving Back: Panama 2012

Christmas is a time of giving. There are special presents for loved ones, cards for friends, goodies for teachers and classmates. But the best gift of all, I think, is the gift of giving back. Through wonderful service and outreach projects at my family’s church home, we have have had great opportunities to give back, both at the holidays and throughout the year.

One service opportunity Canterbury United Methodist Church offers  (through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission), is the chance to do health and construction work at a health clinic at a Methodist community center in Cienaguita, Panama, near the border of Costa Rica.

The health clinic at Cienaguita.
The health clinic at the Cienaguita’s Methodist community center.


The health clinic building, and one of its young patients.

Started by Methodist missionary (and former Canterbury member) Rhett Thompson, the clinic provides medical and dental services to the local people, who are very poor and have no other access to such care. The clinic is staffed and supported by mission trips like ours. Having just returned from my third trip there to provide dental services, I can say with all certainty that the participants gain as much as, if not more than, the local people.

Rhett Thompson hosts the mission team for dinner after a day of work in the health clinic.
Rhett Thompson (at the head of the table) hosts the mission team for dinner after a day of work in the health clinic.

On this recent trip, as well as the ones I took in 1997 and 1999, the team was comprised largely of members of Canterbury and of Trinity United Methodist Church of Homewood. We had a team of ten this time, with several nurses (including my mom, Lois Caldwell), two doctors, one dentist (yours truly), as well as the proprietor/pharmacist of Ritch’s Pharmacy, in Mountain Brook.  So we were fortunate to have a variety of skills and knowledge to call upon in our week of service.

Becky Sorrell of Ritch's Pharmacy in Mountain Brook served as clinic pharmacist.
The clinic pharmacist for our trip–Becky Sorrell of Ritch’s Pharmacy in Mountain Brook, who contributed some of the photos here.
Dr. Kevin Alexander and his mom, Lois Caldwell, at the health clinic.
With Mom in the new dental clinic.


We arrived for our week of work on the heels of a similar mission team from Chicago that had served the previous week. Through radio and other means, Rhett put out the word out in the local area that the clinic would be open for business that week. From all around, people began walking toward the clinic, some of them traveling two days to get needed care.

Each morning at our small hotel near Panama City, our team would convene at seven to make the hour-long trip to the clinic. There was always a crowd there waiting for our help–the women in bright handsewn dresses, carrying all they own in handmade purses, while the machete-wielding men wore jeans, plaid shirts and rubber boots.  Most men, however, were away working in the coffee plantations or in the fields. They are native Indian or compecinas, mixed Spanish and Gnobe.

A local girl in typical handmade dress of colorful cloth.
This girl is wearing a colorful handmade dress typical of those worn by women and girls in the area.

On this trip, we had the privilege of inaugurating the new dental clinic conceived, designed, and developed by Dr. Alan Kushner, a dentist from the Chicago area. It was a welcome surprise, being extraordinarily contemporary. The new facilities allowed us to do procedures that were not possible on my previous mission trips– our best facility then was a bare-bones mobile dental room. We were even able to do some restorative dentistry, and there are plans to add new equipment to further expand treatment options for the community.

The dental clinic in a truck, which we used before the new dental clinic was completed.
This mobile dental clinic was once our most sophisticated facility for doing procedures in Cienaguita.
The beautiful new dental clinic in Cienaguita.
This is the beautiful new modern dental clinic, where we are able to offer an expanded array of services.

Once we gave it a few tweaks, the clinic was humming, and we were able to see the first patients.  It is funny to see how universal some things are–no one in the crowd in front of the clinic wanted to be first to see the dentist. Everyone was eager to wave someone else ahead of them in line so as to put off their dental work just a little longer. Another universal was seeing several ladies admiring their “new” smiles after we did some restorative work on their teeth.

The language barrier presented some challenges. Marcos, our translator, could handle most of these, but we sometimes needed two translators–one from English to Spanish, and another from Spanish to Gnobe, the language of natives there. But we muddled through, and, and by the end of the day on Thursday, Martha, Dan, Lois, Marcos, and I had seen 57 patients for 149 procedures including deep cleaning, extractions, and tooth-fillings, not including all the examinations. WOW!

One of the many patients we saw in Cienaguita.
We took care of many local smiles at the new clinic.

We did manage to see a lot of patients, but it isn’t about the numbers–it’s about the people and the relationships we share. And that is true whether you’re in Panama or Mountain Brook, in church or the dentist’s office–everywhere you go in the world. Cienaguita was no exception. The people were wonderful–so hospitable and so appreciative of our help. We all learned from each other and grew in our time together.

Reading a book to the kids while family members received care.
The kids enjoyed a book-reading while their family members received care.

That is the best part about about reaching out and giving back, and I am so grateful I had the chance to do it. Thank you to my family and my staff, who held down the fort at my office in Crestline, for making this trip possible. And thank you to my fellow team members and the people of Cienaguita, for helping me learn and grow in such a life-changing way.

May you all have a Merry Christmas and many wonderful opportunities to give back in the new year!