A medical student volunteers for a medical brigade to rural Panama

Holding a small bottle of soap and an even smaller wand, I painstakingly blew air through the small circle toward a shabby window in an even shabbier classroom. Bubbles rose and fell with the rhythms of my breath. I created a long chain of bubbles that eventually took over the room, and the hot and humid Panamanian sunlight dyed it the colors of the rainbow.

I was on a medical service trip as a Global Medical Brigade (GMB) volunteer in a rural part of Darien, the largest yet most forgotten province of Panama. The staff and volunteers of GMB set up a mobile clinic in an elementary school on a plateau surrounded by tropical rainforest-covered mountains. Classes were canceled for us. The locals who lived close to the school pretended to go about their daily business while peeking at us, the foreigners with medical supplies. A couple of dogs and chickens screamed through the non-paved courtyard, ignoring bugs the size of an adult hand that were crawling by their feet. Birds sometimes would rest on the only set of overhead lines running through the region.

As a brigader, I triaged, shadowed doctors, sorted medications under supervision, cleaned dental tools, supported patients’ heads during dental extraction, and participated in charla with people who visited the mobile clinic about hygiene, nutrition, and various health-related topics. People often walked for days to seek medical help at the mobile clinic, so I heard.

I was in charla that day, and my job was to entertain kids who were too young to take a health education class. Bubbles came in handy. Through the screen of bubbles, I saw two braids jumping. A little girl, about 3 years old, was laughing and chasing the bubbles as I blew. The girl had just run to my side from her mom, who was listening to the presentation about dental hygiene and nutrition. As the girl chased the bubbles, I relived my own childhood, remembering the bubbles blown out by princesses and clowns in Disney World.

More bubbles. Shyness and passion danced in her eyes, like butterflies, ready to fly. Was it her first time, I wondered, surrounded by the foaming dreams? The girl jumped, danced, looked up into the sky for bubbles, chased and poked them, and tried to hold on to but only broke them. Every bubble burst into laughter. Her true happiness made me feel that the wand I was holding had actual magic powers.

I handed the wand dipped in soap water to the girl so that she could become a wizard of bubbles as well. I joined her in the chase. When I pointed to the bubbles drifting away from us, I could feel the girl’s subtle confusion and disappointment as the bubbles drifted further and further away into the void. Maybe it was my own disappointment that I felt. I could not speak the only language the girl knew, a native Panamanian language, but our mutual love for bubbles overrode our language and cultural barriers.

All dreams fall back to reality, eventually. My dream ended with the charla session. Confusion and disappointment again filled the girl’s eyes as she was taken away by her mom. I was glad that I did not have a mirror, so I could just pretend to ignore the more intense trace of confusion and disappointment on my face.

I stood by the door under a sky-blue clock that was motionless at 6:50, wishing time could stop that easily. I blew bubbles out through the door, hoping some might catch the girl on her way home and plant something beautiful and warm in her heart.

The bubbles rose like the million balloons in the movie, Up. The bubbles could not lift up houses, but maybe they could lift up dreams.

Chang Su is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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