Sunday, February 21, 2010


Imagine 2,000 destitute people living on less than $2 per day, crammed into a dusty patch of scrub the size of five city blocks, in the middle of San Salvador.

A classic con man sold property rights he didn't actually have to the residents, draining them of their life savings and leaving them with nothing. They're squatters in the truest sense of the word. The government has turned a blind eye knowing there's no where else for them to go.

They've slapped together makeshift homes out of sheets of remnant plastic, vinyl, cardboard and corrugated tin. There's no running water and only the odd home with electricity but only because it's been illegally pirated from a neighbouring hydro pole. A dusty network of trails, pathways and crude roads connect these dwellers with each other and the city outside. There are no services and no support from a world that shuns this unfortunate community of survivors.

This is Somalia. It's not a place you want to be when the sun goes down. It's home to violent gangs, unspeakable living conditions, crime and poverty. But it's also home to hundreds of families, people with legitimate but low paying work and committed citizens trying to make their community even barely liveable in the absence of any viable alternative. These are the people we came to see. And with the help of their own community organization and enhanced security, we set up our clinic in the heart of Somalia on Saturday. And what a day it was.

There are no schools here so we were offered small plots of land in front of residents' shacks where we set up the Medical and Pharmacy stations. Dental was given the Community Center, which took the form of a concrete floor beneath a tin roof and no walls. Distribution was positioned inside one section of a resident's home.

Somalia, knowing we were coming, played a large role in planning the logistics and met us with a force of committed volunteers who worked tirelessly with us throughout the day. Clearly, this is not your average slum. These people have nothing, yet continue to push on trying to make the best of their lives. And, shocking though it may seem, amid these tragic conditions, the malnutrition and the hopelessness they face every day, the residents of Somalia were patient, gracious, thankful and, in fact, seemed happy.

The children of Somalia are, for the most part, ill-fed, lice-infested and dirty. But they are beautiful, smiling, fun-loving, well-behaved kids who left us marvelling at their spirit and strength. They lined up, some with their families, some alone, and patiently waited for their turn with the Medical team.

In the Medical tent, Dr. Chunny excised a cancerous basal cell growth on a woman's face and a large cyst on the forehead of another. Elizabeth removed a piece of metal from the forearm of a young man. There was some speculation that it was a bullet - but we'll never know. Lexi, one of our paramedics, diagnosed a critical staph infection in a 17 year-old boy who had spilled boiling cooking oil on his leg just a week ago. Untreated, the infection would have become systemic and life-threatening.

Over in Dental, the team saw 137 patients - remarkable - more than the last time FTC was here. Fillings, root canals, extractions and restorative work were conducted all day without a break. This team of dentists and dental assistants is simply incredible.

Distribution passed out food, Crocs, toys and clothing all day - the lines were long and the work hard. But the contributions of this key team will last far beyond today and will really make a difference in the lives of people who have so little.

The longest line was at Pharmacy. The team was beefed up with more support and, one by one, patients received the medications and vitamins prescribed. By the end of the day, over 840 people passed through the Pharmacy tent.

All in all, it was a hot, exhausting but exhilarating day. What a way to end this powerful week of FTC Medical/Dental Clinics.

We begin packing and getting ready to board the plane for home. There are no words to describe what we've seen here, nor explain how we've been affected by the people of El Salvador. Nine days ago, we met at the Toronto airport, many of us not knowing each other and nervous about the week ahead. It's hard to explain how people bond when thrown together in stressful situations. This team is amazing. We cried, laughed, marvelled, admired and, above all, worked hard to help those in need. And we did it together while growing close in ways that only an experience like this can deliver. Thanks to them and thanks to all who followed this extraordinary journey on the blog. Stay tuned - there's much more to come.

Friday, February 19, 2010


We drove inland again today to a village called Verapaz. Here, nearly 2,000 people live at the base of a volcano. The drive was beautiful with striking views of the mountains and lush green valleys below. But it wasn't quite so picturesque back in November when heavy rains triggered a massive landslide driving water, mud and hundreds of huge boulders into the village, killing several people and burying homes and cars. The scars on the mountainside, where the mud, water and rocks began their downward journey, are a constant reminder of nature's destructive force.

Once again, we set up in a large school and welcomed the locals in around 9:00 am. And once again, we saw some interesting cases. We met William, 17, who has done his best to manage the severe pain of an ingrown toenail for the past four months. Within ten minutes, Dr. Steve had him on a table, local anesthetic in and the toe expertly treated. Then there was 59 year old Audelia, a diabetic with an infected finger requiring immediate draining. She was in and out in no time.

One of our local dentists, Dr. Mimi was feeling unwell today but she came and worked valiantly until mid afternoon when exhaustion and dehydration began to take a toll. But yet again, she insisted on finishing up her assigned patients. Dr. Tony was consulted and suggested IV fluids to help her make it through the rest of the day. Feeling that an IV line hung from the wall behind her would hinder her ability to engage and treat her patients, Mimi asked Lexi, one of our Paramedics to inject a dose of Ondansetron, a powerful antinauseant, directly into a vein on her left hand while she continued to treat the patient in the chair! Now that's commitment!

While the line-ups today were long again, nowhere were they longer than in Distribution.
Sonia, Janice and their team of refreshing interpreters from a local school patiently distributed underwear, shirts, toothpaste, soap, face clothes, baseball hats, balls, handmade dolls, hair barrettes, small jewellery packets, school supplies and eco-shopping bags. Adults also got food bundles including servings of Vita-Meal, a specially-formulated, highly nutritious rice and lentil mixture.

While the Medical team must sit all day, and the Pharmacy crew must stand all day, the Distribution team spends much of their time on their knees fitting shoes to over 800 people! Why shoes? Because this year, we've got thousands of pairs of Crocs to distribute! The Crocs have been a huge hit and FTC is incredibly grateful for this donation.

Later in the day, the entire group walked up to see the devastation caused by the landslide - it
was a remarkable sight. Piles of massive boulders, mud and debris were littered everywhere. Another relief agency was on-site distributing free food for victims who had lost everything. The whole experience only served to strengthen our commitment to help these people.

On the walk back to the Clinic site, we saw a little boy seated in the doorway of a rundown home playing with his new tennis ball and wearing his new Crocs! That was all we needed to see and it made the Distribution team's efforts all worthwhile. Thanks, Sonia and Janice!

We're off to Somalia tomorrow, an urban slum like no other. We'll be in tents, right in the
heart of it all and could see well over 1,000 patients by day's end. It'll be quite a bit different from our previous clinics but we're primed and ready to go.

This week is drawing to a close too quickly for the FTC team. We're making a difference on the ground and only hope we can get back to El Salvador sooner rather than later.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Tonight, rather than another lengthy post, we opt for a few shots of the team from the past few days. Tomorrow it's Verapaz and then Somalia - we're in the home stretch and everything is going smoothly.


Well, sometimes things just don't work out the way you planned. Some logistical challenges on the ground here in El Salvador meant we didn't make it to Verapaz today but instead set up shop in San Agustin.

We didn't "get the memo" until we were on the bus at 7:30 this morning, thus the misinformation on the blog last night (sorry about that!). Like Joya Grande, the site of our second clinic on Tuesday, San Agustin is another struggling village on the shores of Lake Ilopango. But it took longer to get there, over more treacherous, winding mountain roads with near vertical 500 foot drops just inches from the bus.

We were once again in a school with Distribution, the Pharmacy and Dental set up in one classroom each, while Medical operated out of two classrooms - all connected by a central open corridor that quickly became congested with local villagers within minutes of our arrival.

Fascinating and heartbreaking stories surfaced in every room and we did all we could to ease their pain and lift their spirits. And, as usual, we found that the people we served lifted ours as well.

Just four weeks ago, 21 year old Yaneth suffered third degree burns over her arms and back from an electrical fire that burned her house to the ground in minutes. Amazingly, she had received no treatment at the time. Dr. Channy provided her with Opsite dressings, saline and other cleansing products as well as antibiotics and Polysporin.

Dr. Tony visited with 4 year old Genesis who's lighter hair colour, empty, lifeless eyes and listless behaviour indicated malnutrition. After a trip to the Pharmacy, the family was taken directly to Distribution to receive food supplies. And so it continued...

The Dental unit is always busy with long line-ups throughout the day... and for good reason. The drink of choice of every village family is pop - it's the cheapest drinkable fluid available. To make matters worse, most can't afford toothpaste. Kids drink Coke and orange pop from morning to night. The majority of children have rotted teeth by the age of six. It's a heartbreaking tragedy that recurs with every generation - and there's no end in sight.

Our team of four dentists and their dental assistants leave the hotel an hour earlier than the others as their sophisticated portable equipment requires an hour of set-up time. They're up and running by the time the rest of the team arrives - and they don't stop until they've seen every patient. Their "nobody goes without care" commitment means they don't stop for lunch and they don't take breaks, working right through until everyone's been seen.

There are five chairs for four dentists yet that fifth chair is always occupied. Dentist, Dr. Jack, a veteran of FTC Central American Medical-Dental Teams, says, "Local anesthetic takes time to work, so we minimize downtime by jumping to another patient while we wait. It's all about efficiency - we owe it to these people to really deliver on our primary care promise."

Dr. Mark confirmed that fillings, extractions and root canals are the most common procedures performed. And these dentists are fast and efficient while not compromising the quality of care. Fillings and extractions are performed in minutes while root canals take longer. Today, at San Agustin, the Dental unit treated over 100 patients. One of them was 17 year-old Luis, who had never been to a dentist in his life.

Luis top front teeth had decayed to the point that he was embarrassed and self-conscious. Dr. Mark weaved his magic and, in no time, Luis had new white fillings and a million dollar smile.

Meanwhile, Dr. Domenic, our root canal specialist blew a bulb in his overhead light and had to resort to a headlamp but still didn't miss a beat. Dr. Mimi, a local dentist, worked quietly in her corner seeing patient after patient all day long. Critical support from dental assistants, Odalmis, Iris, Melissa and Michelle (two of whom speak Spanish) mean patients receive care quickly and efficiently. This team really performs.

Here is one final story that effectively sums up the quality and character of this critical unit. A young girl was in the chair, ready for several fillings. On the surface, she looked comfortable and unafraid, but Dr. Jack could see in her eyes that she was nervous and needed a little reassurance.

Dr. Jack grabbed a cotton swab and reached for the topical anesthetic which is used to numb the gums. Instead of proceeding, he put the swab in the young patient's hand, had her dip it in the topical anesthetic, gently took her hand in his and, together, they applied it to the appropriate areas. Engaging the patient and having her play a role in the procedure put her at ease and built trust between two people who had never met and won't likely meet again.

We've provided care to over 2,500 patients in three days. As often happens in high-stress situations, we've really bonded as a team. Dinners have been a great release after the pressure of a chaotic clinic. There's lots of storytelling and lots of laughter. We've got the day off tomorrow to recharge and prepare for our final two clinics including our Saturday visit to Somalia, the massive slum in the middle of downtown San Salvador. May we do some good there too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Dr. Steve Russell is in El Salvador now with an FTC Canada Medical-Dental team providing primary medical care to desperately needy families in and around the capital city of San Salvador.

In this contribution to his hometown paper, Dr. Steve provides details of the teams efforts to lend a helping hand. His account details care provided to families in a flood ravaged region of the country.

CLICK HERE to read the story at


Vancouver speaker and author Grace Fox is helping to promote what she describes as an "innovative project".

Grace Fox is promoting the Feminine Dignity Kit (FDK) at her speaking engagements in North America. 

Speaking directly to the plight of women around the world, Grace seeks to provide listeners with resources so they can explore ways to get involved.  This is a very practical way to make a difference.

An FDK means a girl can attend school because they have the following:
~ feminine hygenine supplies
~ soap
~ toothpaste and toothbrush
~ combs
~ hair picks
The FDK is wrapped with a beautiful scarf and shipped in a box

Some young girls in Africa and Central America can miss almost 25% of a school year because they can't afford proper hygiene products. For just $9 anyone can help a young girl complete high school!

Grace has a passion is to help women become daring in their faith, deep in their convictions, and devoted in their relationship with Jesus Christ. Grace uses the written page and the public stage to build Christ-based confidence in audiences worldwide.

Please visit to learn more and visit to see where Grace will be speaking.


Today we headed inland to the shores of Lake Ilopango and a village named Joya Grande (translation: large jewel).

After an hour on the road we entered an isolated area, driving down a mountainside on a twisting, dusty road bordered by 40 foot walls of mud. As we arrived at the local school, the site of our clinic, it was clear that things were not quite right in this part of the world.

Just three months earlier, this entire area was submerged. In November, heavy rains drove a wall of water down the mountain with such force that it uprooted huge trees, obliterated homes and washed away entire villages leaving devastation in its wake. After the flood waters receded, the school became an emergency centre for families who had lost everything. Many of those same families returned today to see a doctor or a dentist and receive medications, clothes, shoes and food from the FTC Canada team.

Now, over three months after the crippling flood, many are still living in tents and what was once a "hard life" has turned to desperate survival. We heard many stories of loss from patients and we also learned that we are the first medical team to visit them since the disaster. Needless to say, our work today, amid the debris and destruction had special meaning for us.

The Medical team has been hard at work all week and have really made a difference in the lives of the people they've seen. But a few cases really stick out for a variety of reasons and ought to be recounted.

Yesterday, Dr. Mike Gilmour saw a 29 year old woman who was dehydrated and suffering from a worsening kidney infection. She is also five months pregnant. While sitting in front of Mike and his interpreter, she vomited and was clearly feeling faint. The kidney infection was one thing, but it was her dehydration that had put her unborn child in grave danger.

Acting quickly, Mike administered IV fluids hanging the bag on a nail sticking out of the classroom's blackboard. In time she rebounded and was feeling more alert and comfortable. Medication to treat the kidney infection and other prescriptions to help her through the rest of her pregnancy were also provided.

This was serious situation and without the support of Mike and the Medical Team, she could have lost the baby. He said: "Back home in Canada, this patient would have been airlifted to a hospital for immediate treatment. Luckily, we were in the right place at the right time."

This morning, Dr. Channy Muhn met Antonia, an 88 year old woman with a massive Basal cell cancer tumour on her face. Channy, an accomplished dermatologist, removed the tumour under local anesthetic in a makeshift operating room at the back of the Pharmacy. Once healed, Antonia will look like herself again. Needless to say, she was both happy and grateful.

Francisca, a 32 year old woman, showed the signs of a rare skin condition that can best be described as an allergy to the sun. Paramedic Glen Canavan, who has been on all five FTC Central American Medical/Dental missions and also volunteered for the recent Haiti trip, consulted with Channy, who confirmed that the white spots on her arms were caused by Actinitis Dermatitis.

This is clearly not an ideal situation for someone living in the interior of scorching hot El Salvador. The team provided medication and education to Francisca arming her with all she needs to keep the condition in check.

Dr. Elizabeth Russell removed two large moles from the face of another patient and expertly sutured up the sites leaving the cleanest of scars. This patient wasn't sick, but had lived with these large growths on her face for her entire life. Dr. Russell was able to change that. It's not always just about simply making patients feel better. Once in a while, it's about making patients feel better about themselves.

Tomorrow we're off to Verapaz, another area that was hit hard by the November floods and landslides. Another long and gruelling day is ahead of us, but the tea is really excited about the difference we are making in the lives of those who have so little. Everyone is growing and changing through this experience - it's hard to describe but it feels good nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


You are invited to join us at the 2nd Annual Blue & White Gala March 7, 2010.

We have watched a one medical team return from Haiti and another depart for El Salvador. In the midst of this activity we are preparing for a special gala evening.

Please join us as we celebrate 5 years of helping children.  CLICK HERE to go to the Blue & White ticket page at