Monday, November 23, 2009

"We were pretty much waiting to die"

I just learned that RMU alumnus Luther Lockhart will be on Oprah Tuesday for a reunion with his fellow passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River on Jan. 15. Everyone on board survived.

Luther shared this harrowing experience with RMU's Foundations magazine. You can read the article here. We're grateful that Luther and everyone else on board is here to tell the tale.

-- Jonathan Potts

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Promise Kept

(The following was written by RMU senior nursing student Lee Folk, who is currently on his second trip to Nicaragua, where a group of nursing students travel twice yearly to provide basic health care to residents in the barrio around the capital of Managua. The trip is led by Carl Ross, university professor of nursing at RMU.)

David was nowhere to be found at first.

It was our first morning in Managua and we had just arrived at the barrio. The girls in the van were all excited, but no one was more eager to arrive than me. It would have been too perfect had David been sitting at the gate where I left him in July, but I didn’t want to get my hopes too high. He could be at work or at school or back at his house for all I knew. As we pulled up to the clinic, I looked out my window for him to be waiting. But David was not there. We all climbed out and exchanged greetings with the other brigadistas before we found seats in the small school desks that fill the open-air waiting area of the clinic. The UPOLI nurses who run the clinic gave us a brief description of the clinic and took us on a tour of the facility. Then it was time to take a walk through the barrio to meet our families. Our group emptied out through the gate. I was putting my camera into my bag when I heard the voice I had been waiting for.

“My friend, you have returned!” It was David, walking down the rocky lane toward me. His black hair was cut shorter, but his wide smile was just as bright. “You have come back!” he said as he embraced me.

“I promised I would, didn’t I?” I said, laughing.

“Ahh, yes, so you did. And so you have kept your promise!”

In the span of an hour, David succeeded in capturing the hearts of all the girls. They knew who David was from the stories I had told about him, but now that they had finally met him in person and become the direct recipients of his infectious charm, they were all instantly attached. By the time we were headed home from the barrio at the end of the first day, the consensus was clear. Everyone loved David.

“Lee, your dad is here.”

Kelly’s words make me stop in my tracks and spin around. My dad is here? How in the world is that possible? In a moment, I realize that Kelly is referring to the father of my Nicaraguan family. I look out the door of the office in the clinic to see Alvero standing there. He smiles and waves. A lot of people are smiling today. Dr. Ross is here.

We have just finished eating lunch on Monday afternoon. Doc will begin seeing the people in just a few minutes. Ashlee and I completed the initial assessment of our family this morning and decided that Alvero’s chest pain needed further investigation at the clinic. We are both relieved to see that our dad is here. And I am glad to know that my Dad is still in Pittsburgh. That would have been too weird.

The clinic has only been open for a few minutes, and already the desks on the porch are filling with patients. We have divided the duties of the clinic into four categories: pharmacy, triage, observation, and playing with the children. Every hour, we rotate positions. Today, Ashlee and I are assigned to the children first. I walk out onto the veranda to see how the triage process is working. Normally, our plan for the day goes down the drain within the first half hour. It’s the difficult reality of third-world healthcare. But we always work as a team, and eventually, all the patients are assessed, educated, and sent on their way with the medications they need.

Somehow, in the end, it all works.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice David sitting by the gate by himself. When we are working, he often sits patiently and simply waits for us to finish. I don’t have much to do at the moment, so I walk over. I have been looking for an opportunity to ask him about something since seeing him on Friday.

“My friend, you are not working?” he asks as I sit down beside him.

“I have a few minutes. I wanted to ask you about your trumpet.” On my first trip in July, David had taken me home to his house to show me his most prized possession, a beautiful trumpet. He played it for me and described his dreams of one day being in a band. We decided to call that band The Barrio Boys. Not long after I returned home, I received an email from David. His house was broken into and his trumpet was stolen by a neighborhood gang. He was heartbroken. David’s smile fades quickly when I ask him about it now.

“Yes, it was stolen,” he says. “I am sorry I cannot make the band now. I still want to be in a band though.”

“Who stole it from you, David? Do you know the men who stole it?” Here in the barrio, violence and theft runs rampant through the night. It is the upstanding young people like David who are often the victims.

“Yes, I know them. They came right through our door in the middle of the night. They took so much, but most of all, they took my trumpet. I am sorry, my friend.”

“You don’t need to apologize, David. It’s not your fault,” I reply, patting him on the back. “Can I ask you how you got the trumpet to begin with? Did you pay for it? Or did the university lend it to you?”

“Oh no. I pay for the trumpet. I save for a year.” He catches himself. “I’m sorry, I say in the past tense, yes? I saved for a year.”

“You saved over an entire year for it? How much was it?”

“Yes, yes. In dollars, it was one hundred and sixty dollars.” I shake my head in disbelief. I have seen the place where David lives. I know what he gets paid. It must have taken him hundreds of hours of hard work to put that money aside for such an expensive instrument. “Yes, I was going to be in a band. You remember? The Barrio Boys, yes? But now I have no trumpet, so I cannot be in the band. Now I just sit and watch them play." My heart is breaking for him.

“Did you try going to the police? Is there anyone who could help you?” I ask next.

“I did go the police. But you know they are… how do you say?....corrupt?”

“So they did not help you?”

“No, there is no help for burglary. It happens so often. I am just so sad. It is sad to save for so long and so hard, and then all is gone in just one night.”

I shake my head as I listen to him. I am visibly upset. This eighteen-year-old boy has been the victim of so much injustice during his short life. His father left when he was young. His best friend was killed when he was twelve years old. And now his escape hatch into the world of music has been taken from him as well. But shockingly, David does not show the slightest sign of bitterness or resentment. On the contrary, he is more concerned about me than he is about himself.

“My friend, why you look so sad?” he asks with genuine concern in his voice.

“I’m just upset, David. I know how much that trumpet meant to you. You deserved to have it.” His next words to me are said with such conviction, it makes me wonder how I have ever found the nerve to complain about the petty hardships of my padded existence.

“Do not worry about it, my friend!” He smiles and puts his arm around me. “My life is good!”

It’s in this moment that I have never been so happy to fulfill a promise in my life.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Whoever told you you could work with men?

As if I needed a reason to check out the New Hazlett Theatre's performance of "Glengarry Glen Ross," it turns out this production of the David Mamet classic is directed by RMU adjunct professor Melissa Martin. She teaches in the Department of Media Arts, and this semester, for the first time, she offered a course in screenwriting.

I've never seen "Glengarry" on the stage, but the film is in my personal Top 10. The cast is loaded with talent: Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino and the late Jack Lemmon. Baldwin's role, incidentally, was written by Mamet for the film, and his brief but memorable scene -- in which he delivers a verbal beat-down to the beleaguered salesmen -- includes the famous line "Coffee is for closers."

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a set of steak knives out there with my name on it.

-- Jonathan Potts

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's not fair

(The following was written by RMU senior nursing student Lee Folk, who is currently on his second trip to Nicaragua, where a group of nursing students travel twice yearly to provide basic health care to residents in the barrio around the capital of Managua. The trip is led by Carl Ross, university professor of nursing at RMU. Click here for a sample of Lee's journal from his summer trip, including his original entry about Ruthia.)

It is a warm day in Managua. The temperature is still hovering near ninety degrees, though there is a constant breeze coming off of the lake. Hurricane Ida deposited her rains here last week and has since moved on, leaving the plants and flowers of this city revitalized in her wake. It is a vibrant color scheme for a landscape, and a welcome change from the barren hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Plaza de la Paz is slowly filling with the lengthening shadows of this late November afternoon. Don Pedro brings our van to a stop at the entrance of the memorial as we prepare for the final stops on our sightseeing tour. Dr. Ross admonishes us again to keep one sharp eye on our belongings, and another on the ground we’re walking on. You never know what you are going to find laying around here.

This place is known as the Peace Park, or the Plaza de la Paz. It was constructed as a memorial to the dead at the end of the country’s fierce civil war in 1991. Violeta Chamorro, the country’s first female president, was intent on demonstrating Nicaragua’s commitment to a peaceful future, and therefore decreed that the weapons of the revolution be buried here beneath the park. This historical site was meant to be a safe haven for families of the dead to come and mourn, and so it was, until the takeover of the Sandanistan government. Today, many are afraid to come and show their grief for fear of persecution.

As we enter the park, there is little to see but a concrete wasteland, bathed in graffiti and wreaking with the stench of fermenting garbage. The plaques thanking the United States and other countries for their role in the revolution have long since been ripped from their places of honor. And down a flight of stairs, in the tomb where despotism was meant to meet its demise, its weapons are rising from the grave. Through the years since their burial, the AK-47s that Chamorro buried have begun to emerge from the hillside of eroding concrete. Rusty gun barrels stick out in every direction, straining against the weight of their concrete prison, almost as if they are trying to answer the call of the country’s divisive dictator, Daniel Ortega.

It is an odd place to find Robert Morris nursing students. We are far from home and still adjusting to the culture and the bugs and the heat. But this moment is an essential part of the trip for all of us. In order to understand the health of these people, we must understand their government and its role in their lives. The buried machine guns of Plaza de la Paz tell us the story of an oppressed people. It gives us a sense of the weight of poverty and hopelessness, of the fight for survival and the cost of war. We walk around the plaza in silence, each of us peering closely at the guns. There is a uniformed man with a machine gun watching us, and though he has told us that he is there to stand guard for us, we are still treading softly.

After a few minutes, Dr. Ross calls us back. It’s time to go. There is one place left for us to see yet, and the sun is setting fast. We can see the abandoned cathedral from a few blocks away, with its twin bell towers rising high above the coconut trees. The principal houses of the Nicaraguan government, the Palacio Nacional and the Casa de los Pueblos, stand on its flanks, creating the central square of Managua. This is the place where I met Ruthia, the little girl who captured my heart and the hearts of my friends and family back home. On my first trip to the country in July, she came running across the square toward me and my classmates, intent on selling us her hand-made fern grasshoppers. While I watched her work, I learned that this ten-year-old girl did this to survive, and that she would likely be robbed by neighborhood boys before she could get the money home to her family. The memory of her comes to mind as I walk onto the square beneath the billboard gaze of Daniel Ortega.

We have been seeing signs of Christmas everywhere since our arrival. Here we see a dozen Nicaraguan men stringing colored lights from the towering pole in the center of the square to form a giant electric tree. It is an interesting sight to see such an approach to decorating. After all, there are no evergreens here. It is a much different holiday display from that of Gateway Center in Pittsburgh, but it brings a smile to everyone’s face to see that the Christmas season is universal. Its arrival before Thanksgiving appears to be a worldwide trend as well. There is a worker at the top of the pole, at least ten stories above the ground. He is dangling from a single cable. I am squinting up at him, trying to figure out how he got up there, when I hear Doc calling me.

“Lee! Lee!” I look over in his direction. He’s pointing across the plaza. “Look! It’s Ruthia!”

I turn around and see a little girl running toward us. I can’t believe it. It is her.

The girls in this group have all read the story of Ruthia. Some of them were even able to persuade their parents to let them come to Nicaragua because of this little girl’s story. She runs right up to us and is greeted by a dozen flashing cameras. She does not know it, but all of these people know her already. I am in disbelief. There are many people that I expected to see again on the return trip. But I never thought I would see Ruthia again. Yet here she is. With no traces of recognition on her face, she immediately begins to make me another grasshopper. I look over at Dr. Ross, shaking my head.

“I can’t believe this!” I can tell he is not as surprised.

“This is her life,” he says simply. “This is what she does.” I stand next to him and we watch the girls place their orders with Ruthia. They all want a piece of her handiwork. She is going to be making quite a living today with all of this business. But one by one, the heartache begins to sink in for each of the girls. The boys are beginning to crowd around Ruthia, and they are whispering to each other. They can see how much money she is making. Lindsey comes up beside me.

“They’re really going to take her money?” she asks painfully.

“They’re going to try.” Lindsey shakes her head and sighs.

“It’s so unfair,” she says under her breath. And it is. It is unfair that this beautiful ten-year-old is even in this square, begging for money outside the gates of a dictator. It is unfair for all of these children. Where are their mothers? Where are their fathers? They wander around this city day after day, their existence hinging on the fluctuating traffic of tourists like us. I feel a tug on my shorts. There is a two year old boy clinging to my leg, trying to find the rest of my gummy worms that I’ve been passing out to the growing crowd. I have given him half a dozen already to pacify his crying, but it only encourages him. I pick him up in my arms.

“You’re going to ruin your dinner, pal!” I say as I tickle him. The sobering realization hits me even as the words come out of Dr. Ross’ mouth.

“It is his dinner.”

Half an hour later, we are loading up into the van. Our exit is not an easy one. Every child in the area knows by now that the Americans are here, and that we all have money. Don Pedro’s job is to get all of us into the van and keep the children at bay. Dr. Ross stays outside for a moment with a handful of cordobas to distract them. He instructs the children to form a line. They push and shove each other, the smallest of them clinging to their older siblings. They do what they know to do, keep their hands outstretched until they get something. To the youngest, this is just all a happy game. They laugh and giggle and push each other to get closer.

The last coin is finally given out and the van door closes. As Don Pedro pulls away, I look out the back window. Panic grips me. The smallest girl, not more than three years old, is running behind the van, trying to catch us. She is just inches from the bumper. If Don Pedro slows down for a speed bump, she is going to be hit. She can’t see me pounding on the window.

“Don’t slow down!” I yell up to the front. “Don’t slow down!” Don Pedro accelerates. The girl stops and covers her eyes in the cloud of dust. Then she waves at me. She is still laughing. I sigh and shake my head. There are so many moments like this here; these moments of not knowing whether to smile or cry. We leave our dollars and our hearts here. We leave them here in the shadow of Managua’s Christmas tree with Ruthia and her friends and her bullies. And we drive away with the memories.

It’s not fair.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Mystery of the Paper 'Shrooms - Part II

Okay, so I finally solved the Mystery of the Paper ‘Shrooms.

As you may remember, I was dying to know the origin of these mock mushrooms that were popping up along the walkway between Massey Hall to the main part of campus (a.k.a., the Magical Forest).

Well, not long after my frustrated post, I received an e-mail from Channing Frampton, a junior media arts major at RMU, with a concentration in TV/video and a minor in theatre. According to Frampton, he and his classmates created these particular paper fungi as part of an installation art project for his humanities class taught by Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre, M.F.A., assistant professor of communications here at RMU.

The first time he saw paper mushrooms along the pathway, Frampton, like me, was curious about their origin. Once he signed up for the humanities class, he learned that this particular medium and subject was chosen because it added to the “magical wonder” of this scenic part of the RMU campus. And being that they’re made of paper, the mushrooms were a great choice for Prof. Lefebvre, who teaches her students to be environmentally conscious.

"I want my humanities students to have hands-on experiences with art - not to just learn about them," says Lefebvre, who wanted a project that could be accomplished in one class, that didn't require any particular artistic experience, and that they could do together. "We talk about installation art and performance art in class and then tackle the mushroom project," she says. "Even the students who are dubious about their mushroom can see the effect that everyone's work has together.

"My idea," she adds, "is just to throw a piece of installation art at the campus, to make folks walking by do a double take, and really start to look at what is around them; to add something unexpected to that lovely walk between Hale and Massey."

So there you have it. Mystery solved. And you probably thought that the paper mushrooms were put there by mischievous little gnomes who live high in the towering pines of the Magical Forest. Ha! How silly of you!

Everyone knows that the gnomes live underground.