Monday, July 19, 2010

Los Dos Davids -- Miracles Happen

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU's nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee's previous trips there, click here and here.)

Katherine Heigl is shooting a movie in Pittsburgh. That’s the topic of conversation at breakfast this Monday morning (July 12), our first full day in Managua. I find it very interesting to simply sit and listen, especially since it’s not very often that I’m sitting at a table sharing gallo pinto with a bunch of folks from the film industry. The crowd has already thoroughly dissected Pixar’s greatest moments, and I haven’t opened my mouth since receiving several stunned glances when I mentioned that no, I had not yet seen Up. Instead, I’m now trying to muscle down a few more bites of breakfast, in hopes that Dr. Ross will not give me the usual grief for not eating enough for the day. No matter more how hard I try, I can’t eat rice before 8 AM. It just isn’t natural.

A few minutes later, Anita brings us around to review our goals for this week. We have five days to shoot enough footage to produce a 60-second TV commercial. It sounds pretty simple. Well, on paper, it does. But in reality, I am becoming aware that there are ten thousand things that need to take place first before shooting even begins. So today, we are going “location shopping” in the barrio, the results of which will set the tone for the week. Our TV spot centers on a giant square of red fabric serving as a backdrop. This giant square is referred to amongst the crew as a scrim. I am to be shot on camera, telling the story about David and his trumpet in front of the red scrim. The viewer, when the commercial reaches its final cut, will be watching the commercial and seeing my face. Then, as the camera zooms out slowly, the camera will reveal that I have been standing in the middle of the barrio the entire time, with David standing right next to me. The goal is to create a concept captivating enough to really interest the viewer in David’s story. Today, we are setting out to find the spot in the barrio that will look best for the shot that the our art staff calls “the reveal.” If we find the perfect spot to set up the camera, then all will be well with Jeff the director and his worker bees. If not, then we have all flown two thousand miles for nothing. So in a nutshell, there is a whole lot riding on this first day.

As we all climb into the van outside the hotel, I am delighted to see that UPOLI has assigned my good friend Don Pedro to be our driver for the week. “I wanna dance with Don Pedro!” I belt out as I walk through the front gate with my gear for the day. He bursts out laughing. Back in November, this poor man was tortured by our nursing team with that doctored version of Whitney Houston’s classic hit for nearly the entire trip. He has not changed one bit since I left, and I am glad to find the Winnie the Pooh figurine still glued to his dashboard. With Don Pedro manning the wheel for the week, I’m already feeling good about our chances for success.

I sit down next to the man who has promised to bring out my inner Tom Hanks. “Jeff, Mr. Director sir, how ya feeling?” I ask. Jeff smiles from underneath his ball cap.

“I’m ready to get this show on the road,” he says. “You ready?”

“I guess I have to be! So explain the mechanics of this to me, Jeff. What exactly are you looking for with the reveal shot?” Jeff nods. He’s the type that enjoys explaining things.

“Well, basically, we’re going to be looking for an expanse,” he replies. “We need an open area that will give the viewer a sense of space. We need to have something to reveal, so it has to be more than just an alleyway. It has to be something that opens up.” In my mind’s eye, I’m trying to think of a spot in the barrio that would fit this description. I understand Jeff to a point, but I sure am glad that I’m not the one responsible for pulling this all together. It’s good to just be the actor.

The first daylight ride through Managua always holds lots of surprises for its first-time visitors. Whenever we land in the capital at night, the streets are quiet and sights are hard to see on the way to the hotel. But once the sun comes up the next morning, there are many things to take in from the window. I am surprised to notice that, for the first time in this country, I am not the guy taking all the photographs. Nearly every crew member has his camera glued to the glass, shooting every other second, trying to frame up as much of this first commute as possible. The intersections are the best sources for stoplight entertainment. There are clowns on crutches and beggars in wheelchairs and shirtless performers juggling flaming batons through the air, each of them very adept at the art of massaging cordobas from of the hands of wide-eyed foreigners. When the light goes green, the pandemonium of the urban traffic begins all over again. Drivers dodge the gaping potholes, sometimes also having to swerve from the dogs that dart out from underneath horse-drawn carts along the curb. One of our photography guys, Rob Larson, sums it up the best from his spot in the back row. “This is like one really messed up roller coaster!”

Before long, we make a turn off one of the paved avenues. “Okay, we are coming into the barrio now!” Dr. Ross calls back from the front of the van. Dino leans over to me, looking somewhat confused.

“Wait, where we’ve been driving wasn’t the barrio? I thought all of that was the barrio.”

“Oh no, that’s the nicer part of town. We haven’t come into the barrio yet.” The conversation in the van dies down as we drive into the neighborhood where the UPOLI clinic stands. I know the film crew has been prepared to see this, but there aren’t really words that jump to mind when you find yourself entering the thick of it in person. Poverty tends to bewilder us as Americans, and when it presents itself abruptly, particularly in this environment, it takes time to adjust one’s focus on reality. I am suddenly aware of how we will appear to the barrio as well. For most of them, this will be their first time seeing a film crew.

David, my good friend and commercial co-star, has been prepped for our arrival, thanks to Dr. Ross. On the last trip down, two weeks prior, he was able to get a hold of David and explain to him what we were hoping to do. I had predicted that David would be ecstatic about such a unique opportunity, and true to form, he made himself at our disposal right away. He currently works at night at a call center for one of the nation’s largest cellular providers, Claro. Since we were going to need him for several full days during this week, Dr. Ross contacted David’s supervisor and asked for permission to miss work. The boss agreed, as long as David could provide a letter from Dr. Ross, explaining why we needed him. As we pull up to the gate at the clinic, David is inside waiting. The crew begins to pile out, and I grab my bag to jump out, too. Kyle stops me.

“Lee, hold on just a second. We need you to stay in the van for a moment while the crew sets up. We probably want to capture this moment of you two seeing each other.” I look back at her.


“Yeah, I know. Sorry. Just bear with us for a few minutes.” Outside, David has already started meeting the crew. There are big smiles, handshakes, high-fives. I want to be out there, too. I watch the kid for a few moments, wondering how long it will take for him to notice that I’m not there. As the guys are talking to him, he starts looking around. The camera crew is trying to pull everything out in time. They aren’t going to make it. David spots me in the window. Not knowing of Kyle’s hopes to get our reunion on tape, he strides open to the van and throws open the door.

“Hello, my friend!” he shouts. “You have come back!” I look back and Kyle and shrug, laughing. The boy can’t be stopped. I jump down to give him a hug. The photography guys are all set up, and I can hear their shutters clicking away. That’s all right. I would want to capture this moment, too.

“You have brought new friends!” David says, looking around at all the guys and their gear.

“Yes! And they all came to make you a big star. You ready to be a star?” David looks at me, always suspicious that I am joking.

“Sure? They are going to make me a star? You joke.”

“It’s no joke, man.” Duane says. “We’re here to see you!”

“Wow,” David says. “I can hardly believe it!”

“Oh, believe me,” I say. “Neither can !”

“Lee, can I get you to step inside the clinic for one sec?” Dino asks. “I need to get you wired up for sound.” A minute later, I find out what exactly being “wired up” entails. Dino pulls out an elastic belt about ten inches wide and stretches it around my midsection. A transmitter is attached to the back of the belt, and then a wire is wrapped around front, ending with a matchstick-sized microphone. This microphone, taped directly to my skin, will be able to pick up my voice and send it to Dino’s headset and the camera. So anything that I say, Dino hears. It takes a few minutes before he finishes taping the equipment to my chest. “Are you a heavy sweater?” he asks. I start to laugh.

“Oh you’re going not going to like me for very long, Dino. My sweat glands pump out gallons a day down here.” Dino looks concerned.

“Seriously? Cause these mics aren’t waterproof.”

“You’re saying I could electrocute myself with my own sweat?” He chuckles.

“Not likely. Well, let’s hope not, anyway.” Behind me, I hear Jeff and Adam unpacking the video equipment. Adam asks Jeff about his opinion of the camera.

“Best 68,000 dollars I ever spent,” he responds. The magnitude of this production is starting to sink in. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. No pressure, Lee.

“Okay, is everyone ready to start walking?” Anita calls out to all of us. She’s the one whose job it is to keep the whole show running on schedule. Though today is not technically a shooting day, we are going to be rolling tape anyway for content that will be used for the B roll. The approach is to act as normally as we would on any day, making rounds through the streets with David acting as translator. Needless to say, the arrival of an American film crew has already caused quite a stir in the neighborhood. We are not very far from the clinic before clusters of children begin to appear in doorways, unknowingly creating prime photo ops for Duane and Rob’s lenses.

I’ve made sure that each of the crew’s pockets is well stocked with Smarties and Dum Dums for the kids. Candy makes fast friends in the barrio. The boldest kids run out first, some recognizing me from previous trips and wrapping their arms around my waist. There are shy faces too, tucked behind light poles and iron gates, too frightened to venture out to the strangers. I begin to hear children whispering names of my Robert Morris teammates. Donde esta Kelley? Donde esta Katrina and Ashley and Lindsey? I hate telling them that they are not with me on this trip, but I relay to them through David that the girls all miss them very much. One of the team’s favorites, Mercedes, asks if she can give letters to me for her RMU student nurses. I promise her I will, then I run to catch up with the crew heading in the general direction of Eddie’s house.

One year ago, nearly to the day, Eddie was the subject of my first story on the barrio, “The Plight of the Managuan.” That day in July, he had been raced to the clinic by his wife and very pregnant daughter. He was suffering from an aggressive case of penile cancer. Though the cancerous lesion had been removed in surgery, the infection that followed was advancing quickly. Three times Eddie had been taken to the hospital in Managua, and three times doctors had sent him home, telling him to buy a casket. There was nothing else they could do. Dr. Ross was also at a loss for what to do with Eddie that day. We ended up sending him away in a cab to the hospital to get antibiotics in hopes of fighting off a superinfection. Before we left that week, a group of us went to visit him at his home. We found him lying in the hammock in the front yard while a UPOLI nursing student hung his IV antibiotics from the barbed wire that stretched across the yard. With nothing left for us to do, we stood around Eddie, held hands, and prayed. Eddie was the calmest of anyone. For several minutes, he cried out in Spanish to God. Our translators whispered to us, in tears, that he was asking God’s blessing upon us, the people who had done what they could to help him. Eddie was at the doorstep of death, and at peace with it. However, God must have had another plan since today we are on our way to visit the man.

Eddie is standing at his door as we walk down the muddy road. “Hermano!” Dr. Ross call out, waving. Eddie grins and raises his hands in greeting. Though my eyes tell me it is him standing there, my mind struggles to process the moment. Eddie is not only still alive, but he’s out of bed and looking as healthy as any other man on the street. His shirt his off, revealing the faded scars from his surgeries. It’s such an incredible transformation, I’m almost afraid to touch him.

“Mi hermanos!” he cries out as he embraces both of us, oddly oblivious to the sound boom that Dino has conspicuously lowered over our conversation. Jeff presses the camera in close, and his grip guy, Adam, stands close behind. Our translator, Marsela, is there to provide help as we ask him how he is doing. “I feel wonderful,” he says. “All the glory to God. He healed me!” Eddie pulls the waistband of his shorts down far enough to show us where the lesion had been. His wife holds out a photograph of him at the height of the cancer for comparison. The area has healed beautifully. Somehow, Eddie goes on to tell us, a doctor in Spain heard about his case and volunteered to help him. He tells us how he was ready to die, but God had heard his family’s prayers. He wraps his arms around us and draws us close, “These two are brothers,” Marsala relays to the crew. Eddie’s daughter stands behind him, holding the baby boy who has arrived safely since July. It’s an amazing moment.

We say goodbye to Eddie for now and keep moving down the lane. A few young boys are kicking around a deflated soccer ball in the street, so David and I join them for a few moments. It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be wearing this giant rubber band underneath my scrubs. “Dino, do you read me?” I mutter under my breath. I can see him nodding farther down the road with Dr. Ross. “Dino, I’m beginning to resent you.” A moment later, Jeff waves me over. “Lee, we need you over here for a second, please.” My soccer break is over. Dr. Ross has been approached by a teenage mother carrying her newborn. Jeff points me in front of the camera and nods when I am close enough.

It doesn’t take a lot of experience to see that the baby we are assessing is terribly ill. Not more than three months old, her legs are just twigs, covered in a speckled rash. When I step next to him, Dr. Ross leans over. “The mother is HIV positive, and her baby has full-blown AIDS.” The infant hangs limply across the mother’s arms, her eyes are bulging from her head, lice crawling all over her scalp. Our translator Edgar is visibly shaken up, as is Dr. Ross. He tells the mother what he can, simple education about treating the lice and caring for the rash. But it’s obvious that there is little that can be done. The baby has weeks to live, at the most. It’s Eddie all over again.

Fifteen minutes later, Kyle tugs at my elbow, pulling me away from the crowd. “We want you to cool off in the van for a few minutes.” I try to assure her that I’m fine, but to no avail. “Lee, we really need you to stay fresh for filming this week. All of us crew can be whipped tomorrow, but you have to be dynamite.” Kyle is my boss on this trip, so I am obliged to follow orders. I climb inside. From the quiet of the van, I take a moment to digest what has already transpired during our first hour of “location shopping.” Though my heart is breaking for the baby and its helpless mother, I have to tell myself not to give up hope. We are not able to do anything for the baby, but then again, we were not able to do anything for Eddie either. Yes, I’m witnessing a tragedy. But in a barrio like this, in a place where human efforts often fall so far short, there exists a preserving hope in the knowledge that miracles can happen. And do happen.

Just ask Eddie.

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