Sunday, October 17, 2010

Medicine Run

My photos are organized into folders. Layers and layers of folders. Under "Everything El Salvador" is a long list of photos by year and by month, and then by place or event. In this labyrinth there is one folder which holds just 3 photos. It is entitled, "The Medicine Run." The photos do not really tell the whole story - a story which perfectly illustrates the kind of crazy, "how did I end up here?" kind of experiences in which I often find myself when I am in El Salvador.

We had been staying in our sister church community for some days, running our sixth Mission of Healing. This had become an annual event during which we teamed up with local health care workers to examine several hundred women and children and men, to provide care for acute infections, and to provide families with basic medications to relieve pain, reduce fever and promote good health. Reiki healing, shoulder massage, hugs and prayer were a big part of the healing experience. Because basic medications and vitamins are very expensive in El Salvador, we typically carried these items with us, always praying that we would have enough.

This one time, we ran out. We had to go on a Medicine Run.

Our Salvadoran pastor's brother said he knew of a place. So, my friend Beto and I climbed into a really tired pick-up truck, and headed out in search of more medicine. Now, Beto and I had been living in pretty basic conditions, and were basically, pretty dirty. Our guide, not phased at all by our less than sweet-smelliness, drove us straight to the source of Salvadoran medicine - Lopez Laboratories. Why not? Let's just go to where they make the medicine! "Do you know someone here?" we asked our guide. "No." We were on our own.

Well, we somehow got through the gate. Our friend went to park while Beto and I were ushered into a very nice waiting room, and then invited into a very fancy office. The owner of Lopez Laboratories offered us cold beverages and presented us with a full catalog of all of the medicines available. We told him our story, about our work with the Lutheran Church. He was incredibly kind, told us his family story and offered to sell us medications at a very reduced cost. So, just like that, my US congregation was set up as a vendor and we were able to get some basic medicines for children at about the same price as what we would pay in the US - except for vitamins. Vitamins were extremely costly - about $8 for a one-week supply of adult vitamins! No vitamins were available for children. We were escorted to the warehouse, and our purchases were boxed up for us to take with us. We were each presented with a sample-pack in a red-zippered bag. On our way out, I snapped 3 quick photos.

I am not a pharmacist or a doctor. My role in the Mission of Healing experience is coordination, and now that I speak OK Spanish, translation. I am not an expert on the pharmaceutical industry in El Salvador, in the US or anywhere else. Nor am I clued into the ramifications that DR-CAFTA or other trade agreements have on the availability of medications in El Salvador. What I know is what I experience, and that is that medicine and vitamins in El Salvador are very expensive and limited in availability. Basic medications, vitamins, toothpaste, and skin creams are beyond the purchasing power of most of my friends in El Salvador. One time I went with a friend to the market to purchase acetaminophen. She bought 2 tablets for a quarter. This is the typical way in which my Salvadoran friends purchase medicine.

On the day of The Medicine Run, we made a second stop at the largest pharmacy in the central city. Under armed guard and with presentation of our passports we were able to purchase antibiotics over the counter at a reasonable cost, and so were able to treat the remainder of our patients with acute infections. Sometimes, we get lucky.

The Salvadoran President has made statements about the need for increased availability of medications and accessibility to medications for the poor. I am so very thankful for the generous Salvadoran and North American healers who give of their time and resources in order to realize Missions of Healing. Yet, it seems to me that meeting the pharmaceutical needs of women, men and children in El Salvador through systemic change would be so much better than relying on random experiences like a The Medicine Run or just getting lucky.

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