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Panama: Floating Doctors

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

All about my experience on a unique short-term medical mission trip

tropical homes in Bocas del Toro Panama
Bocas del Toro, Panama

Well, I’ll admit it. It’s possible that my traveling has turned pathologic. Just three weeks after my trip to Guatemala, I returned to Central America- but this time to the country of Panama. I swear, I really do work full time. Anyhow, after my recent trips to Tokyo and Guatemala, I didn’t really feel like I needed a vacation, as I’d gotten my fill of sightseeing, coffee-drinking, explorative trips. Yet I was staring down the barrel of my only pre-planned vacation time of the year and needed to do something. Another travel-for-the-heck-of-it trip was feeling unnecessary and selfish at this point, and my heart is always looking for ways to serve, so I decided to take a different direction and volunteer as a nurse with Floating Doctors.

What is the Floating Doctors?

Floating Doctors is a nonprofit based in Bocas del Toro, Panamá.  This area is a massive archipelago, so they take boats to poor, remote communities and provide free medical care. The best part about this group is that the communities are on a consistent rotation, with Floating Doctors coming back to each community every 3 months to provide follow up clinics and maintain continuity of care.

Floating Doctors boat on water
Daily commute to clinics

Arriving in Bocas del Toro

Getting to Bocas del Toro was not the most fun journey. It took a night on a plane followed by a night on a bus, and 30 hours in transit to finally arrive in Bocas Town, on Isla Colon. Bocas Town is the main town in the region, and is a hotspot for backpackers, partiers, and those looking for cheap scuba dive certifications. My first impressions on Panama were: this is NOT Guatemala. It is straight up tropical here- heat and humidity like nobody’s business, and the water was sparkling blue and crystal clear. It is also not super cheap- prices were in US Dollars (their official currency!), and prices were only a touch lower than at home. Also, every single hotel/hostel/bar has insane waterfront property, with decks overlooking the ocean. I’m okay with that.

I had a day and a half to myself before meeting up with Floating Doctors, and I took full advantage of it by snorkeling, going out on boats and to the beach, and best of all- sleeping and reading books. The coffee situation in Bocas Town was pretty sad, unfortunately. Anyhow, after chillaxing for a while, I finally met up with Floating Doctors, hopped into another boat, and enjoyed about a 30 minute ride to the island where the FD base was located. The base itself had pretty comfortable accommodations- it felt a bit like summer camp with the water conservation, no AC, cold shower, bunk bed situation- but overall was very livable, and an improvement over some situations I’ve experienced. Our breakfast and dinners were cooked by local Panamanian women (and were delicious), and we packed our own simple lunches every day.

Bocas del Toro Panama
Bocas Town

house on water in Bocas del Toro
Great waterfront property everywhere in Bocas Town!

Floating Doctors base
Floating Doctors base

So what were the medical activities like?

My first day of activities included an outing to Asilo, a senior home in Bocas Town which Floating Doctors visits twice a week. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this- nursing homes aren’t really my thing- but it was enjoyable.  I was actually shocked at how clean it was, and how well cared for the residents were. We took some of the residents out in their wheelchairs for a walk to the park, and just visited with them. My Spanish wasn’t great for really making small talk with the residents, but I think some of the most important things can be communicated through smiles and presence.

The next day was my first clinic day, and I was excited to finally “do stuff.” A very short boat ride brought us to Valle Escondido, and we set up clinic in the center of the small village on a covered cement slab. The intake and provider stations were made of groups of desks from the school, the pharmacy consisted of several pelican cases filled to the brim, and a room in a nearby hut was used for private exams and ultrasound. We were able to do pregnancy tests, urinalysis, hemoglobins, and blood sugars, as well as height/weight and history as part of the intake process; and that was where I was stationed for the day. While no one part of the day stood out as significant, I really enjoyed getting to interact with many people and families from the communities, and was impressed with how smoothly the clinic ran, even in a less than ideal environment.

The next day was another clinic day, and I really enjoyed the longer boat ride to the community of Buena Esperanza- we got to see dolphins playing in the water! And this day I got to be a part of a provider group, working with a doctor and medical student, as part of the diagnosis and treatment side. We saw children with worms and scabies, a man with a pterygium, a woman with seizures, and an infant with a high fever, etc. Families often all came together, and we treated them together, so it could take quite some time to address each person and their individual complaints. I had such a great time at this clinic, and it comes somewhat as a surprise to me.  

It's not the ICU, but I was still challenged

As an ICU nurse, I am typically energized and excited by the chaos and critical thinking of caring for very sick patients. But this was the exact opposite- no life threatening situations, or anything too crazy presented itself (I’m still so sad that I didn’t get to see leishmaniasis). However, I liked the variety of patient complaints, and not knowing what was going to come next. And it was still a learning experience for me- I’ve never reconstituted oral antibiotics, given depo-provera injections, or run a urinalysis myself in my ICU job. I haven’t touched a pediatric patient since nursing school, but now had to figure out the best way to keep a baby from spitting their meds out or get a child to let you dress their wounds. None of it was hard, but it was different and a bit creative, and that I loved. And the Floating Doctors environment was professional, but low key and very learning-oriented. The people I worked with were really the best part- an amazing group of international health professionals: dental hygiene students, medical students, doctors, nurses… all of whom were open, friendly, positive, and genuinely fun people to live and work with.

rural village in Panama
Valle Escondido, the site of one of our clinics

medical team getting into boat in panama
Going home from a clinic

mobile pharmacy medical mission
Our pharmacy

Fun times off the clock

The entire week flew by. There were impromptu swims off the dock at the base, a praying mantis perched on the TV screen eating bugs during a movie, and a hilarious night of games. Crazy thunderstorms and quick learning of which seats in the boat to avoid so you didn’t end up soaking wet. Great conversations and many moments of appreciation for the amazingly beautiful place we were living in. It was a true privilege to experience Floating Doctors, even if only for a short time.

Still curious about medical volunteering abroad? Check out my post on working in a refugee camp in Bangladesh!

If you want to check FD out for yourself here

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