By MELANIE GRAYCE WEST
This month, Debra Fried will travel to the rural, coffee-producing town of Jinotega, Nicaragua, where she will provide care to hearing-impaired people. The patients come by the dozens, some walking more than three hours to get to the clinic.
Ms. Fried, 52 years old, is an audiologist and coordinator of the Audiology Center at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. She began traveling to Nicaragua with Oklahoma City-based Mayflower Medical Outreach in 2004 and now serves on the organization’s board.
Her first trip was a whim. Another audiologist backed out of a mission at late notice and the team of physicians needed a replacement. She now returns to Jinotega two or three times a year. She estimates that the she spends $5,000 yearly to cover the costs of her travel and small items like Tootsie Pops for her patients.
“Deep down inside this is something I always wanted to do. It was always in me. I always kind of regretted not joining the Peace Corps and I always wanted to go out and help people and employmy skills to a population that would really appreciate it.”
The trips are “organized chaos,” says Ms. Fried. “Your day never goes the way you plan it. There are always glitches and blackouts of electricity.”
Ms. Fried jokes that her work in New York and in Nicaragua is technically the same, just a different patient experience. To begin, there’s the lack of air-conditioning and “beastly” heat, she says. There’s no privacy and there are some language barriers.
Some patients lack access to a telephone and so communication goes through the country’s nationalized radio system—like a public service announcement. “It will be like, ‘Mr. Rodriguez, your ear mold is ready. Please go to the Jinotega Ear, Nose and Throat clinic to pick up your ear mold,'” says Ms. Fried. “You have to be very resourceful in these situations.”
Doctors visit for a week or more to perform surgeries, conduct hearing tests and fit patients for hearing aids. The digital hearing aids, purchased at a discount, are sold to patients for a small fee and replaced when broken. Patients also receive a year’s supply of batteries.
Babies to seniors begin lining up early. “You feel a little like a rock star when you walk in. It’s weird, it’s sad and it’s terrible and that’s what we want to change so that the care is there all the time and people don’t have to line up and crowd the room,” says Ms. Fried. A local staffer runs the clinic year-round for basic services.
Mayflower Medical Outreach built a separate computer lab and bakery in town and that income supports the organization’s boarding school for deaf children. The organization hopes to, among its many projects, develop a hearing screening program for first-graders and conduct a genetic study to determine the cause of the high incidence of hearing loss in Nicaragua.