Features: Panama Isles Lack Health Care Access

BASTIMENTOS ISLAND, Panama — Amanda Ryan watched in amazement as a nurse treated the injury of a Ngöbe child. The boy had sliced his foot with a machete and was in need of immediate treatment or he risked infection. As is typical with many rural health outposts around the world, medical supplies were lacking. The nurse didn’t have the kind of antibacterial medicine she would normally use to treat wounds. So she took honey — which has antibiotic properties — poured it over the laceration and wrapped the boy’s foot.

“It was amazing to see the different ways of treating people with the little that you have,” said Ryan, 35, an American who has led a YWAM Ships Kona team to Panama. “It definitely stirred my heart to go back. There are so many needs in different areas.”

While these kinds of injuries are common in Central America, competent emergency health care is not. This is especially true on the islands of Panama, including the Bocas Del Toro District, where volunteers regularly camp at the YWAM Ships outpost to serve the indigenous Ngöbe people. Minor injuries turn into life-threatening situations quickly for those who live as remotely as islanders here. Teams that have served here have often been the only help that villagers can rely on in emergency circumstances.

Thomas Schmidt, who oversees Outpost Panama with his wife, Holly, said most people who live on the Caribbean islands of Panama are far from hospitals and clinics.

“The lack of accessible health care for the people on the islands of Bocas Del Toro in particular is a serious issue,” said Schmidt, of the U.S. “From simple sutures to the treatment of staph infections, our local hospitals and workers are stretched beyond limits.”

Schmidt said the nearest medical facilities require too high of a cost — both for services and transportation to reach them — for most Ngöbe people. He cited a recent incident in which a village woman cut her leg and the injury became infected. She traveled by boat to nearby Isla Colon for treatment.

“They admitted her for several days and then released her and told her to ‘Come in every day for the next 15 days to get it cleaned and change the dressing.’ The basic cost of transportation at about $5 per trip ($10 round trip) made the travel out of her price range,” Schmidt said. “These wonderful people often live with high levels of pain and prolonged periods of infection that just doesn’t need to be.”

Michael Geitz, who preceded Schmidt at Outpost Panama, said he once watched as one Ngöbe teenager suffered the consequences of an inadequately-treated machete injury.

“On the other side of Bastimentos Island there was a 19-year-old guy who had a cut that he had been treating himself. Eventually, it got so infected that he couldn’t treat it anymore,” said Geitz, 40, of Germany. “He called us because he knew we had a doctor.”

Geitz and his team treated the young Ngöbe man by reopening the wound and draining it.

“We are so grateful for the volunteer doctors and nurses who go to offer their services freely at Outpost Panama,” Geitz said. “They make such a huge difference.”

Schmidt said he and his wife are praying for partners to expand the medical and dental capacity of Outpost Panama.”

“Mobile clinics, trained personnel and a larger stocked infirmary would make a huge impact on the health and well-being of our neighbors,” Schmidt said.

Click here for a complete list of the needs at Outpost Panama and for contact information. Click here for more information on our base in Panama.

Photo by f. ermert


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