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NNY doctor treats patients in indigenous Panama for 10 days

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MASSENA — Dr. Michael Pond founded Mountain Medical Urgent Care in Lake Placid 10 years ago and is used to working around sick patients and high-tech equipment in the comfort of an indoor medical facility.

Although his home office is in Lake Placid, Dr. Pond spends time working in his offices in Saranac Lake, Malone and Massena as well.

He recently spent 10 days treating tribal residents of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca along the northern coast of Panama, and the familiar light blue doctor’s uniform he wore was just about the only similar aspect of this experience.

The comarcas are similar to Native American reservations in the U.S. The Ngabe and the Bugle tribes live there and are collectively referred to as the Guyami.

From Feb. 10 to 20, the Saranac Lake resident volunteered his time for the “Floating Doctors” program, providing medical treatment to a handful of indigenous communities mainly around Bocas del Toro.

Floating Doctors “is a really unique organization. One doctor started this and went on floating boats to El Salvador, Panama, etc.,” Dr. Pond said. “They go out to all of these different islands and villages. They are all open-air homes and they are really unique. Obviously they are in poverty, but they are very happy people.”

According to its Facebook page, the Floating Doctors program is designed to “reduce the present and future burden of disease in the developing world, and to promote improvements in health care delivery worldwide.”

Dr. Pond lives with his wife, Natalie, and their two daughters, Hillary and Amanda. Although she’s still in college, Hillary has indicated a desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“Hillary came down on the trip with a friend. They are seniors at Cornell and they came for five days to work alongside the medical crew and me,” Dr. Pond said.

The doctor said he had been to Panama before, but this trip was a completely different experience.

“I had been to Panama a few times for vacation but not to this northwest coast. Getting to this place was a challenge. The island is very remote,” Dr. Pond said. “We flew to Montreal and then went to Panama City. Then we took Air Panama into Bocas del Toro. Then you’re on a little island where they are completely water-based. They have a lot of water taxis.”

A team of 15 to 18 people — consisting of EMTs, nurses, doctors and non-skilled volunteers — traveled on the 15- to 20-foot-wide, 40-horsepower engine open boats to the three villages. Some of the trips took just 20 minutes, while others took up to two hours.

Dr. Pond acknowledged feeling some anxiety about going.

“They have all of these indigenous diseases, and we had to get various immunizations beforehand. There is also the unknown of doing it and you’re going out on boats in a warm, tropical climate. ... Also there were a lot of parasites and kind of strange diseases that I had to get used to being around,” Dr. Pond said. “The biggest thing medically was the language barrier because not all of the interpreters were medical people. Some were EMTs and that kind of thing.

Most of the patients hadn’t visited a doctor is so long that the team had to wade through a list of ailments patients described, he said.

The medical crews slept each night on hammocks with mosquito nets and spent multiple days at each stop.

Whether it was the less advanced medical tools, the less than ideal working conditions or some surprising visitors during the doctor’s appointments, the experience could not have been more different for Dr. Pond.

“On these islands, the chickens and pigs are literally roaming around, so when I am working, the animals might be crawling around by my feet,” he said. “It is very different from what we practice here. It was a lot more difficult doing exams in this wide open area.”

Despite the jitters before the trip and the extreme differences in conditions in Panama, Dr. Pond said that he was very glad that he is now a member of the Floating Doctors.

“I had talked to an infectious disease person about what to worry about. She said, ‘Quit worrying about the diseases and it’ll change your life.’ Retrospectively, she was really right because you cannot believe how poor those people are and how happy they are,” he said. “They are happy outside playing and not inside on computers. It was just amazingly different.”

To donate to the nonprofit organization or for more information, visit floatingdoctors.com.

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