Feighan: Bathrooms, health care and gratitude for the U.S.

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Detroit News columnist Maureen Feighan gives out reading glasses as part of a medical mission trip to El Salvador in January.

I’ll never look at a toilet seat the same way again.

Ducking into the bathroom at the Houston airport on Sunday, I marveled at the rows of bathroom stalls. They had functioning doors, flushing toilets and yes, seats. I nearly swooned. 

For a week, I’d been in a part of Central America — El Salvador — where flushing toilets and especially toilet seats are a luxury many don't have. So is running water and electricity. More than 30 percent of El Salvador’s population lives in poverty.

I’d gone to El Salvador as part of a medical mission team, Wesleyan Medical Missions, setting up clinics in poor and rural communities across the country.

I had selfish reasons for going. My mom had done two other mission trips, both in Central America, wowing us with her stories about giving parasite pills to families and helping children grateful for the smallest gifts. I wanted to share the experience with her.

But what was supposed to be a mother-daughter bonding trip turned out to be so much more.

Our team — two doctors, two nurses and a dentist along with several other volunteers like me — worked alongside a group of translators and religious leaders, offering basic medical and dental care. There is no corner CVS in many villages of Central America. There are roaming chickens, improvised  homes and deep poverty.

My job was to give out reading glasses. I’m not a medical professional but knew enough to ask people a bit about their eyes and fit them for the right strength. 

Working in one of our  clinics about two and a half hours outside San Salvador, El Salvador’s largest city, I met Francisco. Francisco, 66, was confined to a wheelchair. Within seconds it was clear he had major eye issues. One eye was completely clouded over.

He told the translator working with me how he’d had surgery on his right eye but a complication arose later. Something burst and he no had vision left.

“Nada,” he said, which means “nothing” in Spanish.

I told him we could still give him reading glasses for his good eye. We fitted him with various strength glasses, showing him a Spanish Bible and asking if the letters were any clearer. Finally, after several pairs, a broad smile rippled across his face. 

“Muchas gracias,” he said, or “many thanks,” his eyes tearing over with emotion. All that for a pair of a glasses that cost $6 in the United States.

From clinic to clinic, we met people facing challenges most Americans could only imagine. And yet they endured. They survived. They had no choice.

At one clinic, we met a woman who had permanent damage to one eye after robbers had broken into her home two decades earlier. They pistol-whipped her in the forehead, injuring her right eye. Before they left, they killed her dog and tried to hang her husband.

She cried, the pain still fresh. The interpreter and I hugged her. Reading glasses didn’t seem like nearly enough. 

Not everyone had heartbreaking tales to share. One woman told us how she’d injured her eye after she’d been attacked by a “loco pollo” or “crazy chicken.” Another came to us for glasses and told us how she had 14 children, seven boys and seven girls.

“Maybe that’s why I’m blind!” she joked in Spanish.

By the end of week, we’d served 1,800 people. The dentist working with us pulled hundreds of teeth and we gave out more than 300 pairs of glasses.

Flying back to the U.S. on Sunday, we landed in Houston for a layover. Walking down a crowded hallway to go through customs, I saw a massive U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling. I nearly cried. 

We may live in a country with deep, divisive issues of its own — and certainly poverty -- but we have so much for which to be grateful. I’m grateful for it all. Even the toilet seats.