THE BLOG

Are You the Nurse?

07/16/2013 01:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013

The day marked my fourth month in Belize. We had spent weeks and shed buckets of sweat turning a dirty, dilapidated corner of a building into a medical clinic. Since then, day after day, for long hours I attended to patients while geckos climbed the walls and termites built fresh trails on the ceiling over my exam table. Though I was a nurse, my duties had expanded beyond providing basic health care. I also disposed of the occasional dead rat on the path to the clinic, swept mounds of dead bugs from the floor and waged daily war against mosquitoes big enough to ride. Once I even armed myself with a machete and battled an opossum that wanted to make my clinic his home. But on this particular day, I was taking a much-needed break from work.

I had arranged to spend the day with a young woman, Terese, who I met when I bought a small jippa jappa basket. After chatting with her for a short time, I explained that I would love to watch her weave baskets, as well as anything else she typically did as she went about her daily work. I told her I want to record a day in the life of a woman in her village. Terese seemed both shy yet excited about the idea. We agreed on a price and arranged a date. That was two weeks ago. This morning, without a telephone or any other way to confirm our plans, I wondered whether my visit would be welcomed. However, as the truck lurched up to the small grass-thatched hut, I saw that my concerns were unwarranted. Terese and her entire family -- mother, grandfather, two sisters, a pack of little boys and two babies -- were all waiting by the road with wide smiles.

Soon, I observed the well-choreographed bustle of daily work. Most efforts involved food preparation for the mid-day meal. I marveled at both the rustic simplicity of their life and at how creative they had been in adding modern "technology" to lighten their workload. For example, to grind corn for tortillas, Terese replaced the traditional flat rock and pestle with a hand-powered grinder much like the one my grandmother used to grind meat.

Once the corn was ground, I helped Terese and her sister, Justina, gather the laundry and carry it down a dirt path to a small creek that ran behind their home. All eight little boys of the house, ranging in age from 3 to 10 years old, accompanied us. On the way, I tried to memorize their names and identify who were Terese's sons and who were Justina's. I learned that one child was actually Terese and Justina's brother.

There were no technological advances for washing the clothes. Just as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years, the women simply laid each piece on a flat rock, rubbed it vigorously with homemade soap, rinsed it in the creek, and then wrung it out with their hands.

Soon, we headed back toward the house. There was more work to be done. The huge basket of clean laundry was carried back to the hut atop Terese's head and then hung on the line to dry. Next, Terese weeded the garden using a pointed stick and machete. I helped her dig and pull weeds from around tomato plants, yams, and chilies.

Later that afternoon, we sat crouched on low stools outside the thatched hut in the shade of the cashew tree, resting and chatting. Occasionally, the soft afternoon sounds of a birdcall or cricket were heard. The morning work was over. Children were bathed, laundry washed, garden weeded, yams dug, corn ground, tortillas cooked, the black hen killed, plucked and boiled. We had filled our bellies with the simple food. Now was the peaceful time of day when the children played quietly and the women sat undisturbed, enjoying a few moments of female companionship and tranquility.

"You are the nurse?" Terese asked hesitantly. "For my sister," she went on, "you have medicine to make no more babies?"

I smiled to myself. For my sister... how many times have I been approached since coming to Belize with that question prefaced by "for my friend, for my sister, for my cousin"? It was easier for most women to ask for someone else, more difficult to own their own questions. And so we talked. I learned that, at age 24, Terese had four children and that her sister, Justina, 26, was the mother of five. They had many questions and misunderstandings, which soon poured out. "If I drink the pill, I will catch the cancer," Justina said. "The injection -- will it make me crazy with sex? Will I want many men?" Terese asked.

I had heard these same misunderstandings about contraception from other women who came to my clinic. The pill would cause cancer, injections increase the libido dramatically and my personal favorite, "If a man jumps up, then I won't get pregnant." I talked with Terese and Justina and tried to dispel each of the myths. We talked. We laughed. We talked some more.

Both agreed they wanted "to make no more babies." I felt like Margaret Sanger floating diaphragms into the New York Harbor in whiskey barrels as I arranged for the women to walk ten kilometers to my clinic during their next moon time. They both chose "the injection." They smiled. They sighed. They seemed so grateful, it more than made up for all those wretched mosquitoes, rats, termites and opossums. As dusk approached my day in the life of Terese came to an end.

"We will come see you in your clinic soon," Terese promised as she hugged me hard and long. Then the entire family -- all sixteen of them -- followed me to the truck and waved good-bye I drove off, leaving the small village in a dusty cloud.

When I reflect back on that hot, dusty afternoon in a remote village in the middle of the rainforest, I am filled with gratitude. Terese and Justina are a new generation who will bridge the centuries between pounding clothes on a rock and using modern birth control. I sat under a cashew tree with two lovely young women and witnessed the power of simple conversation to change women's lives. We talked. We listened. We laughed. We connected.