Monday, December 29, 2014

T-minus 1 week

1 week to go - this time next Monday I should be on the ground in Panama City. Got a nice surprise in an email this morning - turns out one of my project mates, Kyle, lives in Saugerties so we can drive down to Newark Airport together. I look forward to having the company. With one week to go, aside from finishing packing, the main "to do" items are paying a stack of bills, printing up all of my airline reservations/confirmations (9 of them in all) and notifying my bank as to where I will be so I can use my ATM card while traveling. I went up to Mother Earth with Leah this afternoon to stock up on cat food. Have to go up to Ulster Community tomorrow to pay Dan's tuition. Little odds and ends and the certainty that I will forget something. Hopefully nothing major.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Very Busy

8 days to go. I have been on-call for the Christmas Holiday and it has been very busy at the hospitals with an early morning start (as in out the door by 6:30 am) every day. Leah and Dan came back from Maryland yesterday afternoon and we had a belated Christmas dinner joined by Gail and my great friend Ben Rounds who has just returned from his triumphal tour of Switzerland.We exchanged gifts and sat around the fire until Ben had to leave to drive down to Long Island for a wedding today.

Got up early (again) this morning, made rounds (I am starting to move a bit slowly now - trying to keep all the patients straight in my head), went to the Y and came home for a bit. Leah and Dan headed out for the afternoon. After straightening up a bit, I grabbed Zoey and we headed up to Kenco to check the status of my ugly work glasses. They may not be ready in time. Jim will let me know tomorrow. While there, I picked up a solar-heated shower, the last of my trip related purchases.
Came home and started packing. First thing to be finalized and loaded was the first aid kit. This is actually a very small, portable ER - the only thing missing is the CAT scan. Check it out.
What it does include is two IV sets, small bags of saline, suture kit, epi pens, basic first aid equipment, a host of oral meds (anitbiotics, antidiarrheals, anitemetics), rehydration salts and various topicals. We are pretty much set for most common emergencies. I have NOT been able to find Fer-De-Lance antivenom. None at Kenco, none at Walgreens, none at Amazon. Shucks...

The first aid bag is the first item into the big duffel. The rest of the space in that bag is pretty much occupied with camping gear: sleeping bag, thin air mattress, mosquito net, water filter/pump and tablets and solar shower with room left for the venison jerky and sundry clothes. The piece-de-resistance is my package of solar-utilizing devices. Check this stuff out!
The shiny black pad on the left is a triple fold out solar portable solar panel for charging accessories and can handle laptops, ipods, phones, Kindles and other items. The grey box in the center is a transfer battery that I can charge up during the day with the solar panel then use to recharge devices later when the sun is not available. Once fully charged it can charge a laptop twice, a Kindle 3-4 times and an iPod up to ten times. The big gold shimmery thing is the solar-heated shower.

One of the last things to be done has been to establish a Wi-Fi hotspot on my cell phone. In theory this should have been as easy as turning on the little "hotspot" switch in my phone settings. Nothing is ever easy. Fortunately, my good friend Rich Maletta, who had made me aware of this option on his phone, came up to the AT&T store with me as a Christmas present (I had wanted a pony...). we discovered that I could not HAVE a hotspot because I pay $100 dollars a month more for unlimited data and that AT&T doesn't want people with unlimited data (which we do pay for...)using all that data as an internet link (I suppose I understand - if you did that, you could drop your home internet service and just use your cell phone, which would pretty much cripple AT&T and others). So, I had to pay them LESS money for a new plan which gives me 2 and1/2 times MORE data than I use monthly on average so that I can use my cell phone as a hotspot. The last step was configuring my laptop and testing it out, which I just finished. With that piece in place, as long as I can get a cell signal I can access the web and keep the feed going here at this site.
Phew! That's enough for now. Tomorrow will be dedicated to banking and paying all bills and taxes in advance, and printing paper copies of all of my air travel reservations. When all is said and done this trip will involve 9 individual flights and take me to three countries outside of the US. What an adventure, huh?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day

Merry Christmas to all. I wish you peace and tranquility today. My day began somewhat deficient in those areas but spent in the good company of my friend Dr. Tom Stellato who invited me to join him at 6:45 am on Christmas morning for a patient with an urgent problem. Now, this may appear somewhat inconvenient to many, but it offered me the opportunity to give Tom his Christmas gift early in the day. I think he really loved it!
I figured I may as well stay and make rounds so I set to work and finished by 10 am and went home. Went back to bed to catch up on sleep - phone rang at 11:30 - Mom calling to wish a Merry - Merry Christmas to you Mom! Now, hopefully, time to spend the afternoon playing with my new Christmas toys, like the solar device charger and storage battery that Gail got for me - too cool!!
Also, spending the day watching the solar electricity real-time graph from Solarcity as the sun plays hide-and-seek on my first full day with their monitoring software up and running. Hope your days are fun and joyous. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dr. Gene to the Rescue

If there is one thing that can really derail even the best laid plans, it is a toothache. Or, to be more precise in my case, a broken tooth. For the past several days my tongue had been seeking out an irregular, sharp feeling surface along the borders of one of my lower teeth. Kinda like when you get a piece of popcorn kernel lodged along the gum and it wont come out. Which at first I thought it was. Which is interesting in that I cannot recall the last time I had popcorn. No pain, no sensitivity to heat or cold. Nothing. Except my tongue continually finding the tooth edge and rubbing along it.

So, since I will be leaving in 12 days and do not relish the idea of trying to find a dentist on an island off Panama with a population of 350 and no electricity or running water, I figured Christmas Eve was a good time to give my dentist, Dr. Gene DeStefano, a courtesy call. To my surprise, the office was not only closed for Christmas, he was away until January 5th, MY departure date. How inconvenient. Fortunately, he was still around and could be reached through a call back service. He agreed to meet me at the office for a look at 4:00 pm. One quick look confirmed that indeed I had broken a tooth along a previous filling site. While we discussed the merits of a "wait and see" approach I failed to notice him cueing up the novocaine gel and syringe. With little fanfare, my favorite sculptor went to work. 40 minutes later I left his office with a smooth, regular feeling tooth. You really rock Gene - thanks a big bunch.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Suspended Animation

Two weeks to go - all the major arrangements seem to be in place. The past two weeks have been an absolute madhouse, what with all sorts of Holiday events and social gatherings. I am lookling forward to spending two weeks in Panama working and catching up on rest!

On a slightly more serious note, I am humbled by the great generosity of spirit I see in so many people I know - how many of you have invited me into your lives and treat me like family at this time of year - reminds how fortunate and blessed I am. Special notes of Thanks to Bob and Christine M. whose generous gift will send Gail and me out for a lovely recuperation dinner in Rhinbeck when I return, Chris and Beth for the amazing technotreestand (yes, all one word, and yes, can double as a cat-restraint and bathing device, see photos below) and the ever lovably eccentric Kelsey who made a donation to EWB in my honor as a Christmas gift - you all amaze me!!!

Honorable mention goes to my erstwhile radio co-host (the "click" to my on-air "clack") Ron Hanovice for the carry-on water filter jug that resemble a blue gasoline jerry can and the wonderful Sam and Stefanie from Grand Street for the awesome treasure chest of indispensable items I will need on my journey.
Well, preparations continue...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Small Milestones

Todays Big Events

1. Completed EWB web-based seminar for mentors. No comment
2. Flight tickets purchased - leave from Newark at 3:05 pm, arrive in Panama City 8:30 pm.
3. Assembled and tested hand pump 0.2 micron water filter. Starting with Hurley, NY well water (which tends to be hard, high in iron and sulfurous) it produced very palatable, odor-free, taste-free water.

So far, so good...

Monday, December 15, 2014

3 Weeks and Counting

OK, not much really going on right now. Tom is in the process of acquiring our flight tickets, which is a fairly complicated arrangement since we are all converging from different places. We will be departing from different home cities (Newark or JFK for me): The common pathway has us converging in Atlanta then down to Panama City then a small flight to Isla Popa, then (I imagine) a boat in.I believe I have everything I need both personally and as first aid resource - I just ordered two spray bottle of 100% DEET. Everything is laid out - some equipment, such as the micro water filter, needs a test run. Not certain what power tools to bring but that will get clearer as departure draws nearer. Duffel bags are laid out. Really, as Tom Petty said, "The waiting is the hardest part".

On a larger note, I would encourage everyone who reads this blog to also read the main Engineers Without Borders webpage ( to become familiar with the premise of this amazing organization.I would encourage you to join or show support in whatever way you can. I will also remind you of an excellent book on the subject "Drinking Water" by David Salzman. This really illuminates our very fragile relationship with water across the planet.

Lastly, I am hoping to be able to work with the Manhattan College EWB chapter on their project to develop a structurally sound bridge to cross over a ravine in Cameroon, Africa.It is well into the design phase but it's implementation is being compromised by travel bans in Western Africa as well as funding shortage. They believe they are approximately $20 000 short of having enough to implement the bridge.This may be a place where we can help. Please read on - I really thank you all.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

More Preparations

So, since this preparing for this trip coincides with the Holiday Season I have tried to be super-organized. I had set November 30th as my deadline to have all of my Christmas shopping done and wrapped, and all decorations in place. Well, pretty close. As of today, the tree is up and the lights are on it - decorations can go up piecemeal. At the same time, I have been compiling lists of things needed to bring to Panama. I have been creating EXCEL sheets to keep things straight and, so far, knock on wood, things are staying fairly organized. I have co-opted the two spare rooms upstairs as staging areas as follows:

Staging East: stuff for Panama

Staging West: stuff for Christmas
Fortunately, tomorrow is my Mom's birthday and gifts for her and for my sisters will be distributed then, freeing up space and reducing some of the chaos. I wanted to load the car tonight but it is raining heavily and I don't feel like messing up all the stuff I busted my butt wrapping.

In the upcoming days I will try to educate myself about the flora and fauna of Panama, especially the stuff that is venomous, dangerous or annoying. I will dutifully share this knowledge with you. Just in case.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Today was fairly uneventful. Preparations continue. One of the really neat things about this project is that I get to wear several hats. Obviously, it is an engineering driven program so I am there for construction and implementation of the designed system, but I am also the de facto health and safety person, as well as one of only two or three people on board fluent in Spanish. Yesterday, I had Tony Guerrino write me a batch of scripts for various antibiotics, antiemetics and sundries which I picked up today. They are being compiled into a first aid kit to be housed in a newly purchased fishing tackle box. Aside from medications, I plan on bringing basic first aid supplies, a suture kit and a few 250cc bags of saline and an few IV sets. Just in case.

Tuesday nights meeting was really helpful. I met Scott Underhill and Alex Michaels who were both very supportive. I had also previously spoken with David Railsback who was also great. Spent last night filling out EWB-USA Document 408 which is the application to be a mentor. Sent that out by email to Jesse. The only other steps left are the 605 form (that's the form that states if I die or am badly messed up, I won't blame or sue EWB) and the mentors webinar which is scheduled for December 17th.

I have provided a map here to give a sense of where the project is: Isla Popa is part of the Bocas del Torro archipelago located in the upper left part of the map, near the border of Costa Rica. The canal is near the center of the country. Hopefully, while there I can get internet access so that I can post entries in real time, as well as plenty of photos. In the meantime, for those who are so inclined, I recommend the book "Drinking Water" by James Salzman: It really helps with a sense of perspective  on the magnitude of the impact water access has on our lives.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Moving Very Fast

Thursday night. Try to catch my breath but there is so much to do. Tuesday I was in NYC visiting Professor Moujalli Hourani at Manhattan College. My purpose there was to try to get a toehold with the EWB Manhattan College chapter and see what is brewing with their group. They have completed a bridge for a community in Cameroon, Africa. An interesting development arose in my conversation with Moujalli (one of the most generously spirited men I have ever known) about the possibility about developing a course in biology for civil engineers at Manhattan in the future, but more on that later. Last night was an organizational/planning meeting at RPI chapter to prepare for the January trip. It was awesome and I came away feeling much more confident about my ability to contribute to the project. We discussed everything from construction to communication with locals to shower facilities. Earlier in the day, I dropped off a bunch of prescriptions for antibiotics and other meds, and purchased a fishing tackle box to use as a first aid kit.  Tonight I am home with my back to a cozy fire doing computer paperwork for the trip. And writing this. One of my hopes from the blog is that I can interest people in the project and raise awareness (and funds) for this amazing program of Engineers Without Borders.  Here at home (especially in the Northeast) we take water abundance for granted and give very little thought to the implications of life where water is limited. It truly amazes me when I realize that people live without the fundamental necessity of adequate water for drinking, cooking and bathing: Their lives are shaped around obtaining water, any water, just for these basic tasks. I cannot imagine what it would be like spending 4 or more hours every day just hauling containers of water to and from my home just to meet my basic daily water needs. In most places of water poverty this task is delegated to women and children, diverting them from education and employment opportunities in order to procure an adequate supply of water just for that day...

There is so much to be done and I am energized to feel that I can be part of it! Keep reading!!!

More About the Adventure

(also originally posted on November 30th, 2014)

The project is located on the Caribbean coast of Panama near its western border with Costa Rica. It is located in the Bocas de Toro province and is the village of Sandubidi on Isla de Popa. Here is an aerial of tthe village. As the coordinates are visible on the map here, I recommend you check it out yourselves on GoogleEarth to get a better sense of where it is. The village itself has a population of 350 of which 100 are school age children. In terms of water, the village is served by a number of shallow wells contaminated by both surface runoff (ie, sewage, coliform bacteria) as well a possibly arsenic. A number of different options for securing clean water were looked at (prior to my participation with the group) including new wells, a 5 km overland aqueduct or a rainwater catchment and storage system. The latter proved most feasible and will be coupled to a series of point-of-use sand filters. More later.