Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Translating in Nicaragua

The Alien

I am ET in a group of earthlings. I must learn their ways. . .or I will surely perish. Seventy-seven humans called surgeons, nurses, internists, anesthesiologists, equipment specialists, etc. They are speaking a language of which I understand only the pronouns and conjunctions. They are warm and friendly. My earth brother is their leader. I call him Lanny. He has learned the verbs and nouns. These people fix their kind, repairing limbs with saws and hammers and screws; carpenters of sorts.

We are gathering at the airport in Indiana headed for Managua, Nicaragua with stores of high tech medical supplies—drugs, surgical equipment, state-of-the-art prostheses. Something unpleasant is dawning on me. This: I am to translate their English words—which I don’t understand—to a person (patient) who doesn’t speak English. My Spanish is sketchy. . .faded like the lyrics of an old doo-wop song. Luckily there are several translators and, because this group travels Latin America each year, many of the medical personnel have become somewhat fluent, some have not. My brother still struggles with English.

We fly over the Gulf of Mexico, over the Yucatan Peninsula. I can locate Quintana Roo and Ambergris Caye. Memories of stalking the shallow lagoons with a fly rod in one hand and a Dos XX in my fanny pak and such a thrill in my heart— bonefish, tarpon and permit. Los lagunas de Mahahual, siempre te ven mis ojos. The music starts. Adventure creeps over me like a fresh, cool night sheet.

The hospital

Military guards in camoflauge with Uzis stand in front of closed gates to Hospital Militar Escuela. Poverty lines the streets like a heavy coat of guilt. Inside the walled refuge, the waiting rooms are full of hopeful eyes. . .faces from someone else’s yearbook. Soon they will mean something to me. I hear discussions about how many must be turned away. I am nervous. Spanish leaves my memory banks. Another translator interprets while my mind adjusts. The orthopedic surgeon and others examine x-rays and talk with patients. Most are not mobile.

Two are the most memorable: A little man (maybe four-and-a-half feet tall). His name is Santiago. Dwarfism has scrunched his body like an exhaled concertina, but his eyes sparkle with happiness and wisdom. And trust. The surgeon says we can fix this guy. He is scheduled. People mill about in the room. . .nurses, another doctor, a patient wanders in out of turn, one enters as scheduled. No one is flapped—except me. Santiago leaves. He smiles. I will not forget that face. Those eyes. The spirit is all around us.

A young woman enters, early twenties. A stiff leg dangles. She carries x-rays. She is filled with excitement, anticipation, dreaming of dancing again. The way she tilts her head. The way her eyes reflect the memories. I know. Everyone examines her and the x-rays. The surgeon tells me to tell her there is nothing we can do for her. Oh my God! Nothing? I’m startled. She is too mobile, they say. We have to draw the line somewhere. Someone else wanders in with x-rays from a previous patient, then another patient. I notice the young girl is standing by herself against the wall in the corner. She is crying real hard. I know she hopes the doctor made a mistake; that he will change his mind. I put my arm around her and try to console her (I either told her how sorry I was or that the cereal is in the cupboard (?)). My heart is broken—think of her’s. The surgeon says he wishes he could have been more sensitive about her plight. Oh shit, this is not what I expected. The halls are like honeycombs. Everyone is talking and bustling.

Next was the super bowl. Anti climactic for me. I was still remembering that young girl. Also. I think I told someone that Lanny was my husband (esposo) rather than my brother (hermano). Who won the Super Bowl, anyway? I’m a Patriots’ fan.

It’s Monday. The recovery room is full. Tomasa is her name. Tomasa Tercero Romera. I asked her if she could wiggle her toes yet. She could. Any pain? Not really, she says. And for the first time I am able to carry on a conversation. Man, what a great feeling. The words were there. . . not all of them. Enough. She has been married for 39 years. Her husband is a cop. They have many children. I tell her about my family, and we talk about our differences. Kathy, an Operation Walk nurse, comes over and gives her one of Kathy’s rosaries (what a wonderful gift!). Tomasa’s eyes well with emotion. I feign a rapid glance behind me and wipe my eyes. Thank you Kathy. I take Tomasa upstairs to her room. In the hallway she holds my hand and asks if I would pray for her good health. I couldn’t wait to stumble through that first prayer. Monday, February 8, 2010. Old Dwight Ritter prays for his first patient. In Spanish. Of his life! I’m certain God wet His pants with laughter. What the hell have I been doing all my life?

And Melida Vincenta Perez Solis began throwing up just before being wheeled into Recovery. . .on my scrubs. Jeannie stuck one of those dainty little buckets under her chin and wiped her mouth. Melida smiled a groggy smile. (Darn. I thought those barf buckets were strap-on urinals for men.)

Recovery was filling up fast so I began wheeling patients upstairs to the salas and trying to organize the flow of spinals ready for surgery with patients completing surgery. . .they all look the same and many were not sure if they had been operated on.

The Recognition Ceremony

We were late leaving the hospital. My brother announced early in the day that everyone has to be out of the hospital by 3:30 P.M. so we can change and get to a ceremony of thanks by the Nicaraguan government. Absolute! No variations! So it was 4:40 P.M. when we returned to the hotel. No time to shower. I still carried the faint gift of Melida on my shirt and smelled like an over-worked sumo wrestler. . .but so did everyone else.

I stepped up in the world. Lanny told me to drive with him. Only because he needed someone to translate for him. The driver spoke no English. . .slightly less than Lanny. His name is Marlomena. Lanny shortened it to Marlo then Martin then Mario then Manuel then Whats-his-name. Marlomena’s theory of propelling a car is to drive so fast that no one would want to risk their life by pulling out in front of him. And he really hates stop lights. . .hates them like I hate old ladies driving large town cars at 25 m.p.h. A man washes our window while we wait, then ole Marlo guns it to 60 m.p.h. just in time for the next light to change. A smiling man washes our windows. The bus with the rest of the OW team slowly drives by like in a Roadrunner cartoon.

We pull up to the military building, and in Nicaraguense fashion we are casually alphabetized by first name. Having been Ritter all my life it was good to sit up front as Dwight. Lanny sat at the long ominous table with Generales y otros personas muy importante. That took over a half hour. Then there were speeches of gratitude ably translated by the two lead translators. My brother delivered a nice speech. . .without notes. He does that well. Then each person in the audience came to the front, up the four steps, received a certificate from Ortega’s number two man and filed off. As a “D” I got my certificate early and settled back into my chair just as the “M’s” started. Anything would have been entertaining to us at that point after being herded like sheep for 40 minutes. Only a nurse named Michele was smart enough to get her dress snagged in her behind. From that point on, the evening was a success. Nothing else mattered. Michele’s wedgie saved the day. Thanks to our resident linguist Marcos Dominguez, we determined wedgie was translated as “hungry butt” or culo hambriento. Soon the Asociacion de Academias del la Lingua Espanola will acknowledge Marcos’ genius.

And that was Monday.

The hospital

Last spring I chopped the top on a 1949 Ford business coupe. There were six of us. I made the cut. It couldn’t be too deep or we’d damage things inside. It had to be perfect. I remember how carefully we planned it, and then everything behind the skin. That’s what I thought of as I watched a surgeon examine a knee and briefly hold it before he cut. I’ve never seen a surgery before.

Tuesday. The head Nicaraguan nurse in the Recovery Room is Esteban. At first he was suspicious of us—the volunteers; Kathy, Amy, Jeannie, Melody and me. . . especially me, but after a very short time we discovered his smile, so big his cheeks closed his eyes. You can’t be suspicious of that fearless foursome, they’re too warm-in-your-face. Then for the next three days we all kept hugging each other because it felt good, because the Nicaraguans are an affectionate people.

Wednesday. At one point we had nine patients in recovery and were planning on three more. A nurse (Tricia) and myself began to get the patients who had been there the longest to the salas upstairs, but there was a shortage of beds upstairs and the hospital nurses were not eager to improvise and make room for others. So ole Tricia came up with a brainstorm: We’ll have the military wheel the patients into the salas. How do you turn down someone who carries an uzi? I reinforced Tricia’s speck of brilliance by telling the upstairs nurses that CEO of the hospital ordered this. It worked

By Wednesday we were beginning to have more confidence in what manufacturing companies call a “through put” or the total manufacturing process. How to balance a crises flow of patients from anesthesiology to surgery to recovery to upstairs rooms. By the end of Wednesday the team had done over 80 surgeries. I had gone upstairs to say good bye to Tomasa and met her daughter, Rosaria. Tomasa said the doctors were “angels from heaven.” She held out her arms and hugged me.

In 2008 Operation Walk gave Karla Machavo a new knee. She had traveled 12 hours to get to the hospital. Wednesday, as Lanny walked out of the lunchroom he heard someone call to him by name. It was Karla, having traveled 12 hours again in intense pain in her hip. By 4:00 she was on the operating table.

Thursday. Karla was doing beautifully. Another patient from 2008 stopped by the hospital in heels to thank the team.

Serving the needy is what God intended us to do. Doing it for no other reason than God’s message. Not for money. Not for fame. Not for a sneaker contract. For the glory of God.

Mombacho andGranada

Friday was wonderful. But as I sat on the porch in Mombacho, reflecting back on the number of lives this group became a part of, I was overcome with humility and gratitude. Santiago, Tomasa, Juan, Concepcion, Melida, Karla and 80 others would all agree with Tomasa that this team was made up of “angels from heaven.”

I hope I can rejoin you all next year.


  1. SO glad you sent the link to your blog, Dwight! Reading this has been an adventure... and an excellent reminder that each of us has an obligation to do what He has called us to do.

    Have a terrific Tuesday, and keep the posts coming!


  2. Gosh I love to see writing like this- about such wonderful moments in time- when humans show up and glorify their maker in such a tangible way! Thanks you for sharing with us.

  3. Poignant.
    Incisive. Real.
    Pictures in Time.
    Human. Inspiring.
    God's people.
    Angels everywhere.

    Thank you, Dwight, for being one of those angels who witnesses God's great love for all of us while marching in faith.


  4. Moving. Inspiring. Touching. Thanks for sharing, Doug. I love missionary stories! What a wonderful experience of sharing God's love.

  5. You have made the experience come alive! I love how you are not afraid to show your vulnerability...it connects us to you, since we all feel the same way from time to time. How fortunate you are to be aware of your ability to love as you are loving (and not afterward).

    With joy,

  6. Thanks, wonderful account wonderfully written.

    All the best,