We’ve been in the Dominican Republic for seven weeks now, and opportunities to pause and catch our breath have been few and far between. If we’re not working on one thing, we’re exploring another. Our research features both a quantitative and a qualitative approach. The former utilizes a medical chart review to investigate the risk factors for amputation and demographics of patients at a nearby diabetic foot clinic – one of the few places in the world where you may be able to count more heads than feet (amputations cover the surgery board from dawn to dusk). The latter uses focus groups of adults in urban and rural areas to explore community perceptions of type 2 diabetes. At this stage in our project, unless we’re venturing out to a neighborhood to conduct a focus group, we spend the majority of the day in the archives room deciphering centuries-old hieroglyphics (to be fair, do any doctors have good handwriting?).
Despite this, we’re lucky enough to have seen, and experienced, more than our fair share of this magnificent country. We’re currently living in the capital, Santo Domingo, which is home to many ‘firsts’ of the New World, including a hospital, a cathedral, and Christopher Columbus’s house. The streets are closely packed, the buildings are brightly colored, and the traffic is just one big blur. You’re never more than one block away from the traditional Dominican dish of rice, beans, and chicken, and if you consider yourself a flan fanatic then you’ve come to the right place. Here we’ve enjoyed the rhythmic beats of a Grammy-nominated Haitian band, explored every museum the city can throw at us, and ventured into some water-filled caves twice the height of the Rotunda. In the early days of our trip we spent about a week on the north side of the country in Puerto Plata, which is a stunning combination of mountains and beaches. There we visited a neighborhood-run chocolate factory, jumped down a mountain via a succession of 27 waterfalls, and went snorkeling with fish of all shapes and sizes. More importantly, we gained a significant insight into the local lifestyle and resources through tours of hospitals, schools, and impoverished communities. There is currently some inspiring grass-roots work that aims to promote local businesses by improving the environment and infrastructure. Finally, we have also visited Baní, where we ate our own weight in fruit at the annual mango festival.
If there is one thing that has amazed us more than the places, it is the people. Everyone we’ve met, from tour guides to taxi drivers and students to doctors, has been exceptionally welcoming and generous. On a daily basis it’s evident that the people here are unwaveringly proud to be Dominican and are eager to improve their country in any way possible. In the first few weeks of our project we worked closely with the local medical school. Every day, five or six students gave up their free time to help us implement our research with maximum ease and preparation. They were excited to hear about our plans and were sincere in their evaluations of the DR’s current health system. Without individuals like this, our work simply would not be possible. The three of us may be the ones examining the scribbled words of medical charts day in and day out, but there is an immeasurable number of people who have essentially written us into existence from behind the scenes.
We’ve faced many challenges so far, but none have been insurmountable. Working at a hospital, our work is rarely high on the list of priorities for the nurses and doctors. We’ve found patience and flexibility to be the name of the game when it comes to working with medical staff, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Furthermore, we initially struggled to connect to local communities for the purpose of conducting focus groups. Once we started collaborating with the community service leader at the medical school, however, our path has been relatively obstacle-free. Of course, there are minor bumps such as food poisoning, power outages, and discovering that milk is sold warm at the grocery store, but these are the realities of doing research abroad and we take them in our stride.
As we settle more and more into our routine, we continue to appreciate the little things we may not have noticed a few weeks earlier. Before long we’ll be packing up and heading to the airport, and I know that none of us are ready for that day. Until then, we’ll be squeezing every ounce of data out of the hospital records and carrying out a few more focus groups. We had better eat some more flan, too.
-Samuel Case, Emerson Aviles, and Gloribel Bonilla