In a country renowned for its "big blue sky," there is so much more to experience and explore when one just takes a moment to notice.
Friday, October 17, 2014
In a country renowned for its "big blue sky," there is so much more to experience and explore when one just takes a moment to notice.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Imagine living in a rural farming community with rivers and streams flowing down the mountains and through the center of town. Imagine going to sleep with bats flying around your room and feeling lucky that they can’t bump into you inside your mosquito net. Imagine waking up to the call of the ever-present chickens around your home and community. And imagine making abono orgánico by digging up soil and mixing it with gallinazo.
I lived in such a community as a CEC volunteer and loved it. When else in your life can you live in such a beautiful place where you are welcome in every home, and people offer you brindi on every visit?
However, I did have intestinal woes which lasted much of my service in that community. At times I would stay in bed in the fetal position hoping the abdominal pain would go away. At other times I would make strategic trips around the community, knowing which latrines were well taken care of when nature made its urgent call. I downed enough antiparasitics, antibiotics, dewormers, and steroids to evict whatever may have been living in me at the time.
I returned home in late May of 2010. I immediately started education classes and accepted a position teaching high school Biology. As a full-time student with a full-time job as a first year teacher, I was exhausted on a daily basis. Who wouldn’t be? I still had a little cough I left Panama with, but overall I felt pretty good. I didn’t even get the flu or a cold from the variety of pathogens the kids seemed to fill my room with on a daily basis.ng the abdominal pain would go away. At other times I would make strategic trips around the community, knowing which latrines were well taken care of when nature made its urgent call. I downed enough antiparasitics, antibiotics, dewormers, and steroids to evict whatever may have been living in me at the time.
I started out this school year with a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away. I was seen by ten doctors and specialists who each mentioned they had never seen anything like it. Possible diagnoses included tuberculosis, parasitic infections, fungal infections, and even cancer. CT scans, bronchoscopy and laryngoscopy with cultures and biopsies, blood tests, and urine tests were all performed.
When several of the 35 tests came back positive, I was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of disseminated histoplasmosis. With Google on my side, I learned about the disease. Histoplasma capsulatum is found in soils in river valleys. Bird and bat droppings enrich the growth medium for the fungus causing highly contaminated soil. Histoplasmosis is caused by the inhalation of Histoplasma capsulatum spores from contaminated soil. The spores become airborne through disturbing contaminated soil. Patients who develop clinical manifestations of histoplasmosis are usually immunocompromised.
It all made sense. My community seemed like a perfect place for the fungus to grow. My job description made my contact with the spores likely. And months and months of chronic diarrhea would have certainly compromised my immune system. Plus, the first described case of histoplasmosis was made in Panama.
The infectious disease doctor described the likely course of events. The middle and upper lobes of my right lung were infected with histoplasmosis during my service and just chilled there without my awareness. It ate away a ping-pong sized hole which with time walled-off from the rest of my lung. Eventually the fungi entered my bloodstream and settled in my throat. It was there that the fungi ate away at my epiglottis and surrounding structures, swelling them up like a balloon and causing the pain, trouble breathing, and swallowing problems that kick-started my search for a diagnosis.
With a diagnosis, treatment began. I was started on Amphotericin B infusions through a PICC line (think chemo) lasting four hours each day. My reactions to the medicine eased through a week in the hospital by pre-medicating with Tylenol, Benadryl, and morphine. After another week of outpatient transfusions, I began treatment with Sporonox, an antifungal medicine that I will be taking daily for at least the next year.
I learned a few lessons through the course of diagnosis and treatment:
Document everything! Many of the drugs prescribed during my service were recorded in their Panamanian names that doctors here could not decipher. Some papers in my medical records requested from the Peace Corps Post-Service Unit were missing and others belonged to other volunteers, including a positive pregnancy test with the name and social security number of another PCV. Also some medical complaints were lost in translation: an infected bug bite for which an antibiotic was prescribed was recorded as swollen due to a fall. Keep a medical journal.
You know your body better than anyone. The general practitioners insisted that I had a viral infection when antibiotics didn’t work. So I started going to specialists and got the ball rolling. A radiologist kept me in isolation for an entire day thinking I had TB even though I didn’t have any other symptoms of the infection. So as soon as I was let out, I went to an Urgent Care for a TB test which was negative. A nurse in the hospital failed to follow the infusion protocol for my drug. So a call to the duty nurse who rectified the problem. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Love your health insurance. I never thought health insurance was particularly important. I was young, healthy, and invincible. My employer paid my premium each month. I accidently signed up for the better plan this year and paid an additional $30/month out of my paycheck. Boy am I glad I did! The medical bills have added up to over $70,000 while the medication I now take costs about $1,000/month. My out-of-pocket has been about $5,000 so far. I would have been screwed without insurance.
Applying for FECA benefits is not scary. It seems like a daunting amount of paperwork to gather and months to wait when you feel like crud. My doctors were less than forthcoming with providing the required paperwork listed on the form (CA-2). After several requests, I finally sent in what I had and figured I would send any additional paperwork as requested. Just two weeks later, my case was accepted. Reimbursements were also not as difficult as listed on the Peace Corps website. FECA actually only requires one form (OWCP-915) and receipt to process a request instead of getting each provider to fill out a separate affidavit (OWCP-1500) and medical notes. Organize paperwork by provider, not date, to make things easier in the long run. And did I mention document and keep copies of everything?
I don’t mean to scare you with any of this, just keep you informed. I certainly don’t regret a minute of my service. I hope you stay healthy and enjoy your time in Panama!
Monday, June 6, 2011
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Description of Peace Corps Service
Kerry C. Piper
Republic of Panama 2008-2010
After a competitive application process stressing technical skills, motivation, adaptability, and cross cultural understanding, Peace Corps invited Ms. Kerry Piper to serve as a Community Environmental Conservation Volunteer in the Central American nation of Panama.
Ms. Piper began an intensive 10-week pre-service training on April 16, 2008 in Santa Clara, a small town located about an hour west of the capital, Panama City. The program consisted of language training, technical skills training, and area studies training. As part of the technical training, she took a lead role in planning a day-long environmental festival. She assisted other trainees in the selection and adaptation of age-appropriate activities for over 250 elementary school children in the training community.
The Pre-Service Training included:
- 110 hours of formal instruction in Spanish
- 135 hours of technical training in environmental education and natural resource conservation
- 190 hours of observation and application of conservation techniques in rural communities across Panama
- 30 hours of cross-cultural training related to the history, economics and cultural norms of Panama
- 40 hours of medical, safety and administrative issue training
The In-Service Trainings conducted 4, 6, and 9 months into service included:
- 6 hours of formal instruction in Spanish
- 15 hours of project specific and cross-sector technical training
- 20 hours of training in project management and leadership
- 10 hours of cross-cultural training
- 42 hours of training of the trainer including learning theory and nonformal education techniques
On June 26, 2008 Ms. Piper completed training and was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was assigned to Cabecera de Cochea, a rural mountain community of 270 people in the western province of Chiriquí approximately 10 hours from Panama City. Her primary assignment involved working with an environmental group to promote ecotourism and reforestation and teaching environmental education to instill an understanding and appreciation of the environment in youth.
On April 20, 2009 Ms. Piper relocated to Vaquilla, a community of 1,000 people in the central province of Coclé, just four hours from Panama City. Her primary assignment here involved creating environmental education tools for teachers and fellow Volunteers and facilitating trainings using these tools. In addition, Ms. Piper developed logos and brochures to promote ecotourism, worked with board members of community groups to strengthen leadership skills, taught courses in computer literacy and English, and served as a regional representative for the Volunteer Advisory Council and Editor-in-Chief of La Vaina, the magazine of Peace Corps Panama.
Agricultores y Conservacionistas Senderos de Volcán Barú
Agricultores y Conservacionistas Senderos de Volcán Barú (ACSVB) is an environmental group dedicated to the conservation of the southern zone of Volcán Barú National Park through reforestation and the promotion of ecotourism. Ms. Piper facilitated a series of seminars to aid group members in the development of leadership, planning, and networking abilities. She worked with group members to design an environmental action plan to improve an office used for tree nursery management and hosting ecotourists and to develop and build sustainable trails in the National Park.
Together, she and ACSVB applied for a grant through the Atlantic Panamanian Mesoamerican Biological Corridor Project (CB-MAP II) and the National Environmental Authority (ANAM). Ms. Piper taught members how to use a GPS and map existing trails, a required component of the grant application. She assisted group members in the planning and realization of tours for ANAM VIPs arriving to assess the strength of the group and the feasibility of the project. The group was awarded $40,000 to fund their project.
Ms. Piper developed and certified a three-month, 40-hour Eco-English course through the Ministry of Education which combines environmental education activities with English vocabulary pertinent to the budding ecotourism opportunities in her community. She designed lessons with a variety of interactive activities to engage learners. Twelve dedicated students, ranging in age from 13 to 53, completed all assignments with a high level of accuracy to graduate.
Girl Scout Troop
Seeing the need to engage women in conservation activities from an early age, Ms. Piper formed a Girl Scout troop. Seven girls between the ages of 7-13 attended weekly meetings consistently. She taught environmental education and life skills at each meeting, building self-esteem and empowering young women to act on their own informed decisions.
She was awarded a $418 Volunteer Activities Support and Training (VAST) grant through the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant to support her troop. She brought four of her girls to the Annual Girl Scouts National Camp in the province of Coclé focused on HIV/AIDS and the environment. Ms. Piper was responsible for 20 young girls in her group, in addition to her own troop. She facilitated daily camp activities and energizers for over 300 campers. She created a meeting bag filled with supplies to implement a variety of activities to reinforce lessons learned at camp. Before her departure from Cabecera de Cochea, she trained a mother to take over the Girl Scout troop and continue supporting the community’s young women.
Environmental Education Tools
Ms. Piper created an effective and easily applicable cross-reference of over 500 environmental activities in the Environmental Education Activity Guides available to Panamanian educators from their National Environmental Authority. She did so by applying themes to the learning objectives of the national curriculum for Natural Science and Agriculture. She then assigned these themes and a teaching method label to each activity. The thematic index enables a fourth grade teacher to create a unit on organic compost by linking dynamic games to explain the theory with practical experiments to apply them. The teaching methods index allows a first grade teacher, who needs to strengthen the reading skills of her students, to draw from a number of environmental stories.
Due to her close interactions with top Panamanian ministry officials, the cross-reference has been incorporated into teacher trainings on environmental education certified by the Ministry of Education and will be included in the next edition of the Environmental Education Activity Guides.
She also translated and adapted activities from Flying WILD- An Educator's Guide to Celebrating Birds, a program of the Council for Environmental Education to create a guide dedicated to the diversity and conservation of Panama’s avifauna. Ms. Piper promoted this new guide to the National Environmental Authority and other NGO’s in Panama to broaden the scope of programs they currently offer. With a $60 Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) grant, she was able to create a kit of all materials needed to facilitate the activities contained in the guide which she used with several youth groups.
Environmental Education Guide and Trainings
Ms. Piper took a lead role in modifying the goals, objectives, and indicators of the Community Environmental Conservation (CEC) Program as a member of the Program Advisory Committee. The Committee decided that a comprehensive manual to guide trainees through Pre-Service Training and help Volunteers to meet the goals and objectives of the CEC Program during their service was essential to the success of both CEC Volunteers and the program.
She drew from her experience teaching in rural Panamanian schools, work with environmental groups, and research from documents published by the North American Association of Environmental Educators, Peace Corps Information Collection and Exchange, and other experts to write chapters on environmental education and conservation in Panama with a fellow Volunteer. She then edited all components and used Adobe InDesign to publish a comprehensive training manual for Peace Corps Panama Trainees and Volunteers. It guides Trainees through the basics of environmental education, instructs them on how to approach Panamanian schools, plan interactive activities with teachers, train teachers in environmental education, build leadership skills in community groups, create environmental action plans, build networks between community groups and government agencies/NGOs, and implement project plans. It also includes anecdotes and case studies from the best practices of current Volunteers and an appendix full supporting documents.
Using the CEC Reference Guide, Ms. Piper facilitated 6 hours of In-Service Training on environmental education for 13 Group 63 CEC Volunteers and 32 hours of Pre-Service Training for 17 Group 65 CEC Trainees. She developed training plans addressing the preparation and professional development needs of environmental educators using Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT system (motivation, information, practice, application) to engage participants of all learning styles.
The National Authority of the Environment of Coclé invited Ms. Piper to co-facilitate a week-long, 40-hour continuing education seminar for 39 Panamanian teachers. She translated key sections of the environmental education guide for use in the seminar and presented the information with numerous hands-on activities to apply the learned knowledge.
Graphic Design for Ecotourism Groups
Using Adobe Illustrator, Ms. Piper designed logos for five environmental groups from Chiriquí to Colón. These groups have used their logos on letterhead, signs, and polo shirts to promote their projects to other community members, tourists, and agency personnel. She also designed an English-Spanish brochure for Albergues Navas, a bed and breakfast near Omar Torrijos H. National Park in Coclé, which can be found in tourist information centers all over Panama.
Project Management and Leadership
Project Management and Leadership (PML) is a training program to create transformational leaders and strengthen groups. Created by Zach Barricklow and fellow Volunteers in G56, this program has grown to become a cornerstone of many Peace Corps Panama Sectors. Transformational leadership is a process that cultivates the ability to grow and stimulate positive change beginning on a personal level, moving to a group level, continuing to a community level, and eventually extending to an institutional level. Through this process, community members begin to cultivate qualities of a transformational leader.
Ten sessions guide participants through the individual level of influence to the institutional level. In each session, participants practice various skills that they can bring back to their families, groups, and community to become stronger leaders and more successful managers of projects and initiatives.
Training community members, in what at times are abstract topics, is facilitated through the use of a facilitator’s guide and participant’s manual. Ms. Piper revised the "Project Management and Leadership" manual by designing more worksheets and improving the flow of the document. She facilitated a total of 98 hours of Transformational Leadership seminars for 56 participants in her communities and in national seminars.
Secondary Projects: Computer Literacy and English Education
At the request of the director of the General Basic Education Center (CEBG) Vaquilla, Ms. Piper taught 150 hours of computer literacy to 244 elementary school children and 9 educators, during which time they achieved competency in basic computer management, Microsoft Word, and various education software.
Vaquilla receives an average of 50 American tourists a week who arrive for a rural tourism experience. After touring an organic farm, they are treated to a presentation of folkloric dance at the elementary school and lunch in the home of a local family. Few of the tourists speak Spanish.
Ms. Piper taught English classes at the request of the Tourism Group, covering basic conversational phrases, food, family, and home. She also taught classes in the middle school modeled after the successful Eco-English course she developed.
Secondary Projects: Volunteer Advisory Council and La Vaina
The Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC) is a group of Volunteers consisting of a 4-member board of directors and 9 regional representatives who meet once per trimester to discuss issues and concerns facing the approximately 160 Volunteers serving in Peace Corps Panama.
Ms. Piper was elected by her peers as the regional representative for Coclé. During her tenure, she pushed for improved training and response to security incidents and participated in a roundtable discussion with the Country Director, Programming and Training Officer, Safety and Security Coordinator, Training Director, Assistant Training Director, and VAC board of directors.
La Vaina is a 60-page magazine published three times a year by the Volunteer Advisory Council of Peace Corps Panama. La Vaina strives to inspire and entertain rather than simply inform Volunteers. It is distributed to all Volunteers and staff in-country, as well as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and NGO partners. Volunteers and other readers should be able to pick up an issue and enjoy it a day, month, or even years after, gaining insight into Volunteer life and development work in the field. Each issue of La Vaina has a theme creating a cohesive publication.
Ms. Piper managed three cycles of La Vaina. In the months prior to publication, she solicited articles from Volunteers and others who can shine light on the topic, including Peace Corps staff, agency personnel, and community members. She also solicited artwork highlighting the talents and experiences of Volunteers to illustrate each article. Just prior to the publication of each cycle, she dedicated a full week in the office to edit articles, layout the pages in Microsoft Publisher, and delegate tasks to her assistant editors.
Ms. Piper has achieved an advanced competency level in Spanish during her service and has effectively used Spanish to communicate in all of her different projects and daily social interactions.
Close of Service
Ms. Piper completed her Peace Corps service in Panama on May 25th, 2010.
Pursuant to section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act 22 U.S.C 2504 (f) as amended, any former volunteer employed by the United States Government following her Peace Corps Volunteer service is entitled to have any period of satisfactory Peace Corps Volunteer service credited for purposes of retirement, seniority, reduction in force, leave and other privileges based on length of federal government service. Peace Corps service shall not be credited toward completion of probationary or trial period or completion of any service requirement for career appointment.
This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order No. 11103 of 10 April 1963, that Kerry Piper served satisfactorily as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Her service in Panama ended on May 25th, 2010. She is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career-conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a non-competitive basis. This benefit under the Executive Order entitlement extends for a period of one year after termination of the Volunteer’s service, except that the employing agency may extend that period for up to three years for a former Volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning, or engages in other activities that, in the view of the appointing authority, warrant extension of the period.