Bill has been going to Leon at the same time each year for more than 20 years, back to the same rundown hospital on a back street in Nicaragua’s third-largest city. He works up to 10 hours a day doing surgeries with equipment that would likely be thrown away if found in any U.S. hospital.
He and the other American doctors and nurses who come with him and those who come at other times of the year with other teams are all part of the nonprofit Project Health for Leon. The nonprofit was started by Raleigh cardiologist Dr. John Paar in 1985 and has been associated with Wake Medical Center in Raleigh and the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville. In addition to performing surgeries, the participants also lug supplies and equipment that they begged from places in the U.S. The nonprofit has no salaried employees and is run by medical professionals who volunteer their time.
I don’t pretend to know much about the nonprofit, but I have been privy to my father-in-law’s work because of my wife’s involvement. She’s been accompanying him on the trips for about 14 years.
In April I and many other members of our family went to Leon because Bill was being honored by the hospital for his years of service. What I learned was that more important than all those hundreds of surgeries he’s performed, perhaps, is the training he has provided to Nicaraguan doctors. Bill has helped convince administrators at Wake Med over the years to allow several dozen interns and doctors from Leon to visit operating rooms in the U.S. to improve their skills and learn from doctors here. Everyone here knows about our healthcare bureaucracy and all its requirements and limitations, so one can only imagine the immense red tape that has to be cut through to keep a program like this going.
About 40 of the 80 or so young doctors he has helped train — men and women who have spread out all over Nicaragua and who are doing vital work in a very poor country — came back to Leon in April for the ceremony. That evening I heard many, many kind words about the help and training he has provided, about how much it meant for him to have come to the same hospital all those years, how the relationships he forged have carried beyond the hospital.
My family has been fortunate to have become a small part of this circle, expanding its reach and its ties to the U.S. Lori has earned her own place in the hearts of many in Leon. She began going as an interpreter, venturing into operating rooms and relaying communication between locals and American doctors.
Over time her father learned Spanish, so Lori became a personal liaison between local families and the American medical professionals. She also became the guide to take the American medical professional on trips to visit the unique places in Nicaragua when they took a day off from the hospital, going to cathedrals, volcanoes, coffee plantations, colonial cities, crater lagoons, beaches or rain forests. All these years, Lori has also quietly does her own charitable work, hauling books and school supplies and toys to orphanages or to the children’s ward of the hospital. For years I have looked at photographs of smiling children on the receiving end of her kindness.
Many who live in Waynesville may remember when Gustavo, Fernanda or Anna Raquel were students at Waynesville Middle or Tuscola High School. These were children of doctors who came into our home on informal exchanges and lived with us for up to six months at a time. While were in Leon in April, my daughter Hannah reconnected with these friends as the now young adults spent some late nights out on the town and a day snowboarding on rocks down a volcanic mountain.
Our ties to Leon have also been strengthened from time spent on the porch of my mountain house. Bill brought many of those interns who visited Raleigh to Waynesville, staying at the Oak Park Inn and visiting the sites here. That trip always included long sunset dinners on our porch with great food, singing and guitar playing, cigars and the fantastic Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana.
Many of those doctors could not speak English and my Spanish is awful, but it didn’t matter. We became friends, and I reconnected with many of them during this recent visit.
Mario came up to our table during the celebration and asked if we remembered him. Of course Lori recalled his name, and the young doctor retold how he had visited us during the Tuscola graduation of our daughter Megan. He remembered comments from the speaker, details of the ceremony, and he told us about a smooth rock he had picked up from a stream we took him to play in.
He took the stone back to Raleigh and then back to his daughter in Leon, telling her about the lush mountains of Western North Carolina where he had been treated kindly by a family he had just met. He promised her then — about five years ago — that he was going to take her to the Smoky Mountains when she was a little older. So two weeks ago in Leon, we invited him and his family to come visit us and promised to give them the grand tour of the mountains.
And then a week ago we got a surprise email from another family we reconnected with. One of their sons is 17 and is planning a visit here in June to stay with us and practice his English.
And so the circle keeps coming around, again and again, this time to Western North Carolina, strengthening bonds started for us by my wife’s father and extending now down two generations to my own children. Powerful, meaningful stuff.