Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Project HOPE Volunteers Offer Comfort in Nicaragua

Snapshots from the field are notes and stories collected by Project HOPE volunteer and freelance writer Lynne. Lynne joined our medical volunteers as they worked along side the team from the USS Kearsarge for Continuing Promise '08--a humanitarian mission to Latin America involving non-governmental organizations, the U.S. Navy and government organizations. In the excerpt below volunteer Lynne recounts the story of a lobster fisherman from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. Lynne spoke to the fisherman as he waited be seen for his paralysis.


Snapshots from the field...Fishing for Lobster

They are visible everywhere. Men with weathered faces awkwardly hobble around with canes and walkers; others manipulate curious home-made wooden wheelchairs that look like carts with levers spun around to propel the cart forward.

Robert Gilberto Mendiola looks older than his 37 years. Laboring for every breath he takes, he shuffles along with the aid of a walker. He barely covers a foot before he stops, utterly exhausted.The lobster fisherman is paralyzed on his right side. Clad in a blue t-shirt and embroidered jeans, he swabs his face with a face cloth. There is no expression on his face, or hope in his eyes. He's come here this day expecting Project HOPE to cure his debilitating injury.

A lobster diver for 20 years, Mendiola is a casualty of an industry where untold numbers of men are paralyzed, maimed, or killed as they drop to ever greater depths in search of lobster. The more lobster grounds are over-fished, the deeper they dive. Safety standards appear to be non-existent and decompression sickness is rampant.

Through a translator, Mendiola claims he can hold his breath for 30 minutes; he says he plunged to 130 feet. The dangerous work left him with a decompression injury, paralysis and a wife and six kids to feed. Five hundred men have died where he works, Mendiola says.

He jiggles one knee in agitation as he speaks. "It's the only income they have; there is no other way to survive," the translator explains while Mendiola falls silent. "No jobs in the city (Puerto Cabezas)." Lobster divers are a major source of income for the town. The temptation to take such risks is great. I learn that a lobster diver can earn $500 US and more for 12 days of work.

Many now are making less as lobster grounds are depleted and divers plunge deeper and deeper in search of them. How will Mendiola feed his family?"Only God knows," he says. He needs help to stand. He looks down towards the pharmacy set up by Continuing Promise 2008. Anyone else can reach it in a swift few steps; it will take Mendiola a good five minutes even with the aid of an enlisted man. He can't afford painkillers, but today, they are free at the clinic. He knows nothing can be done for his paralysis, but he came anyway, desperately seeking answers.

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