My Grandmother’s Stethoscope

Two years ago, my Grandma’s stethoscope saved a little boy’s life.

The boy’s name was “José,” and he lived on the island of Bastimentos in Bocas, Panama. My family of seven was on the outreach phase of our YWAM (Youth With a Mission) Training.

On that trip I kept thinking, “I can’t believe we are doing this!”

We arrived at a rickety boat dock to take a water taxi to the island. We had an incredible pile of luggage, 11 adults, 5 children: and only one boat available to take us across the ocean channel to the island. My prayer life grew in intensity that day as our boat floated about 8 inches above the water and we thrummed through the waves to the island. I realized during that ride how desperately I wanted us all to live to see another day!

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The blue boat behind us was our ride: 11 adults, 5 children, and all our luggage!

Once arriving, we stepped off the boat and began a trek up the hill to the house where we would be staying. Suddenly, invisible needles began poking me from every direction. I began frantically slapping my arms and legs and wondering if I was losing my mind. One of the volunteers on the island laughed and said,

“Welcome to Bocas. Those are chitras.”(pronounced: chee-trahs)

Chitras are tiny insects, like miniature mosquitos, which are barely visible, and they strike in large numbers. Literally, you will feel yourself being bitten/stung by 10-20 insects at a time. It is maddening, because you just can’t seem to make them stop.

They would be a very useful tool to employ in terrorist interrogations: A few minutes with a “herd” of chitras and you would be willing to betray National Security in order to be left alone!

In addition to the boat ride and the evil chitras, Bocas islands boast a humidity not of this world. In our short two-week stay, with our sheets and clothes in a state of constant moisture, my family’s skin began to itch due to fungal infections. This “island paradise” looks amazing in photos, but it is no easy place to do missions!

Meeting José and his mom, Lorena, was my favorite memory of our trip to Bocas. One night, we shared a time of worship with the nearby indigenous community. A small boy, about 6 months old, was coughing and struggling to breathe. Holly, the director’s wife at the base, approached the mother and we began trying to investigate how long the boy had been sick. He had contracted a cold and it was getting worse. His mother faithfully banked a fire to create smoke at night, in order to keep the chitras (bugs) away from her little family. The smoke was irritating José’s airway, and his symptoms were worsening. She told us he had been awake the entire night before, coughing and running a fever.

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I examined José in a wooden hut; the homes are built on stilts so families’ homes stay dry even when there is flooding from frequent rain.

We gave the boy a breathing treatment, and his wheezing eased. We prayed for him and his mother took him home. I slept fitfully that night, worried for baby José and praying every time I thought of him.

Babies will battle sickness and lung/airway challenges bravely, but once they run out of steam, their condition can deteriorate quickly and death comes quickly.

It was a long, dark night and I was anxious to find out if he was alright the following morning.

What I saw the next day made my stomach clench. He was limp, lying in his mother’s arms. The boy who had struggled the night before in not letting the white women get near him now no longer cared who touched and held him. His mom, Lorena, told us that he had slept “better” the night before. That also worried me: He was getting sicker, not better.

As an afterthought, before setting out on our two-month outreach, I had packed my Grandma’s 30 year-old Littman stethoscope in my bags. I went to get it, and listened to José’s lung sounds. As much as I wanted to, I could hear no air moving in the lower lobes of his left lung. The upper lobes were full of crackles. I am no doctor, but I was concerned he had pneumonia, and told his mother she needed to get him medical treatment immediately.

Every minute that went by, José’s lung infection was causing his body to fight for oxygen and he couldn’t keep this up indefinitely.

Lorena called José’s father, who told me there was no reason for his son to go the doctor. I found out that many of the indigenous go to clinic to be seen and the doctors often don’t even physically examine their patients; if they do, they prescribe medicines the indigenous are unable to buy. I argued with José’s father, emphasizing the danger his little baby boy was in. I assured him that we would help his son get the medicines he needed as long as he would give Lorena permission to take José to the doctor. He finally gave his consent, and I was relieved. Lorena would not have taken her baby to the doctor without her husband’s approval.

Once we had permission, Holly (the YWAM missionary at Bocas island) moved heaven and earth in order to find a good doctor who would agree to examine José.  Once she located a doctor, she then had to arrange to transport Lorena and José to the main island by water taxi. Several hours and many phone calls later, we had everything arranged and José was going to see a doctor.

Lorena and José returned that afternoon, loaded down with five different medications. José did indeed have pneumonia, and the doctor agreed that his condition had been serious. Because of everyone’s efforts, José was able to get the care he needed.

The best part of my trip was taking my battered grey stethoscope that had belonged to my grandmother, and hiking to the village every day to listen to José’s improving lung sounds.

The last day before I left Bocas, his tiny brown hands grabbed the stethoscope and held it as his big, dark eyes gazed up at me. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about how close this precious baby had been to death.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Bocas island. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hike over to the village and check on José and his family. He is a happy, thriving, almost three-year-old. He now has a baby brother named “Tom,” who was named after Holly’s husband. I gave some snack bars to the children, and José happily munched on one, oblivious to the fact that 2 years ago he was fighting for his life. Before I left, I prayed with them and thanked God for His love and protection over this little family. I know he probably didn’t understand me, but I hugged José and told him that he is special and that God has a big plan for his life.

José is alive because of God’s amazing grace, the untiring efforts of willing missionaries, and my Grandma’s battered 30 year-old stethoscope.

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December, 2017: José and his family. He is the little guy in the orange shorts and teddy bear shirt.

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