Each morning, the islanders lined up 50 or 60 deep outside the makeshift medical clinic in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. After they filed into the waiting room, the residents of the impoverished fishing village said a prayer for the Americans who came to help. And after they received care, they sang their thanks.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . …
Dr. Brett Scotch closes his eyes as he remembers the scene last month in the small town in St. Elizabeth parish, where he and other medical personnel from the Tampa Bay area spent a week providing free medical care.
"They were just very appreciative. It was a wonderful gift that they gave to us," said Scotch, a Wesley Chapel ear, nose and throat specialist. "It was an amazing honor to have a waiting room full of patients singing songs of praise to their health-care providers."
From the outside looking in, Treasure Beach is a traveler's paradise. The remote island destination has postcard sparkling water, natural sandy beaches and less hustle and bustle than other vacation getaways. But what tourists usually don't see is the poverty that plagues those who live there.
Most residents are either fishermen or farmers and make less than $75 a week, said Ken Webster, executive director of the Hillsborough County Osteopathic Medical Society. And, he notes, many don't have sufficient medical care, if any at all.
There isn't a hospital or doctor for at least 20 miles, and most residents don't have transportation. So twice a year for the past four years, Webster, a doctor of education and former school superintendent, has organized the Osteopathic Medical Society-sponsored medical missions to help the community.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," said Webster, who has gone on the trips several times.
The missions were the brainchild of Janet Nichols, a senior vice president of investments for Raymond James & Associates' Tampa branch. She had married her husband, graphic designer Erik MacPeek, in the tropical oasis of Treasure Beach and fell in love with its people. Then she saw their needs, and wanted to help in any way she could.
Her first major accomplishment was rebuilding a community center, virtually a tin-roof shack, which was destroyed by a storm in 2004.
Using $25,000 of her own money, she and her husband brought along six friends and started work on a stronger, larger building. Soon, donations from other vacationers poured in. So did labor from locals.
The building now houses the Treasure Beach Women's Group Benevolent Society, and the community center has programming dedicated to educating and bettering the lives of islanders. That was the first home of the medical clinics.
Nichols approached Webster about arranging regular medical missions twice a year. The rest is history.
"They come once and they get hooked," Nichols said about the physicians.
Now in March and July, members of the Hillsborough County Osteopathic Medical Society pay out of their own pockets to travel to Treasure Beach, carrying donated supplies to set up a free clinic. Depending on the time of year, they are accompanied by nurses, medical support staff and medical students from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton. Another philanthropist built a diabetes clinic but could never get the money to run it, Nichols said. Now the visiting medical missions use that building for the free clinics.
"We have found cervical cancer. We have found melanoma. We have found lots of serious things that perhaps would have never been found," said Nichols, who goes on most of the missions.
A record 253 patients were treated during this summer's trip, which ran July 16-23. Over the past four years, more than 1,000 people have received medical treatment at the clinics.
This was Scotch's first medical trip to Jamaica, but it won't be his last.
"I wanted to experience medicine in a way that it can only be experienced where your primary focus is to care for people who have no access to care," he said.
With the lack of technology at the clinic, Scotch said, he embraced a return to "old-fashion diagnosis."
"You really have to focus on using your hands, your experience and your knowledge to diagnose problems," he said. "It's a different way of experiencing medicine, and I wanted to experience that firsthand, and I also wanted to give back."
During their stay there, the medical team helped people of all ages, from infants to senior citizens, and made serious diagnoses, aided those with cleft palettes, and in at least one case simply provided children's Tylenol to cure a high fever. They even performed minor surgeries.
"We diagnosed a child who very likely had a brain tumor," Scotch said.
They spotted signs such as severe neurological deficit, and some facial paralysis. He was about 8 years old.
"We got him into the system," Scotch said.
Many of the patients were unaware that a Jamaican health system exists until the physicians, working alongside a Jamaican doctor, got those who needed follow-up care into Jamaica's Ministry of Health system.
"We even treated one hiking-through American," Scott recalled. That hiker was diagnosed with cellulitis of the leg, a severe skin infection. "It was his lucky day. It probably saved his leg."
Scotch said he was awestruck by the experience of helping the villagers.
"They're some of the poorest, happiest, most appreciative people I've ever had the privilege of caring for," he said. "Though we didn't heal everybody, we shared with them our spirit of caring and humanity."