Mystery in Zaragoza

by Tim Fallis

We landed in Zaragoza in good time and started setting up in the town square using the municipal offices. Dental, as usual, had come much earlier so they could be up and running by the time we arrived. It was immediately clear that Medical and Pharmacy were not going to fit in the space provided. Once we moved Pharmacy to the Mayor’s office across the square, set-up proceeded smoothly and we began seeing patients within 15 minutes. In fact, now that we’re all “in the groove”, everything was going smoothly – so smoothly that I began to wonder what I could possibly write about in tonight’s post. I needn’t have worried.

Things were pretty routine in Dental with the team moving patients in and out in short order, pulling, filling and saving hundreds of teeth by the end of the day. The Dental Duo of Jerry and Collette met 29 year old Maria Flores for a simple cleaning and a couple quick fillings. It was hard to miss the massive dark lesions lining the inside of her mouth. And so began a mystery that replayed itself countless times throughout the day.

Noticing dark patches on her arms as well, Jerry immediately brought her over to see Channy, our dermatologist. He diagnosed her with a tragically disfiguring skin disease called Lichen Planus which covered her entire body. Oddly, this is quite uncommon, yet Channy had already seen 15 cases of it by noon. While Maria’s was the most severe he’d ever seen, there are clearly many others in Zaragoza who suffer from it as well. Lichen Planus is often idiopathic, meaning it just appears for no apparent reason. Other cases can be related to certain drugs or even chemicals in the water or food. The people of Zaragoza seem to be in generally good health, making the abundance of Lichen Planus cases here a real mystery. It may be genetic, environmental or pure coincidence – we’ll likely never know.

Next door, Medic Melanie Fallis was busy training patients on the use of bronchodilators and corticosteroids, commonly known as “puffers” while still maintaining her regular patient load. She experienced quite a rush of patients in respiratory distress. We’ve seen this before in El Salvador as so many families cook indoors over open fires and are constantly exposed to smoke and cooking fumes. Beside Melanie, Steve Russell met a 42 year old man who, 20 years ago, had been shot in the head with an AK-47 during the revolutionary war. Never a dull moment in Medical!

Distribution and Optical occupied a large tent between Medical and Pharmacy. It’s typically the last stop for patients on their Speroway Clinic journey. While Marie-Andrée got busy fitting reading glasses, Sandy and Rochelle began distributing food, clothing, school supplies and toys. This team has had great fun handing out donated hand-made dolls and, as always, they were a huge hit with the kids today!

The crowds persisted throughout the day posing ongoing traffic flow challenges, particularly in Medical. But with Ron Burkholder and Guy Meloche on the job, there’s no challenge too great! These two guys just know how to plan and route traffic to make these massive line-ups work. They’re on the job all day directing and shifting the waiting masses to optimize the flow of people in manageable numbers with maximum efficiency. We’d be nowhere without you, Ron and Guy!


Our final numbers for today: 1,049 patients in Medical (another Speroway record!), 210 in Dental and 202 in Optical (also a new record!).

So we’ve now got four clinics in the book but tomorrow will be altogether different as we return to San Salvador’s largest and most desperate slum, the 1st of December, formerly known as Somalia. It’s sure to be our busiest day, but, no doubt, our most rewarding. We’d love you to check back here tomorrow for the update – our final post from El Salvador.

P.S. On the bus back to the hotel, many of the doctors concurred that they’d seen a high level of stress in many of their patients today. We later learned why. It seems that gangs run the town of Zaragoza when the sun goes down and they’ve enforced a curfew of 7:00 pm every night. They’ve been told that anyone on the streets after that time will risk being shot. It’s no wonder El Salvador has the highest murder rate in Central America – just one more harsh reality in the lives of people who have so little. Let’s not finish on such a discouraging note. Here are some more shots from today that try to tell the other side of the story – here’s to health, hope and happiness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *