The subject of a painting on the side of the only public building in a rural village in a mountainous region of southern Mexico is surprising, but it pleases Dr. Robert Bull Jr. of Lewiston.
It's not an ad for Coca-Cola or a religious image, but a list of risk factors that may lead to cervical cancer. Bull, chief of family practice medicine at Mount St. Mary's Hospital, chuckles as he describes the image.
"It might seem primitive, but it's very effective," he said in an interview last week.
Bull said there's also a painting with instructions on how to build a latrine in another village in that region, a bit of education that was new a few years ago to the indigenous people who live there.
The 51-year-old doctor with a youthful disposition becomes serious as he recalls images of the people who live there, who had little medical care until 14 years ago when a group of nuns at Stella Niagara, who have a mission in the Mexican state of Chiapas, persuaded Bull to travel there with them for one week. He saw 500 patients and knew he wanted more.
He has returned every year, bringing more doctors -- and recently dentists -- along.
Bull will be in Chiapas from Friday to March 6.
He said a doctor in Ohio who came with him as a resident in the early years has now begun a trip of his own to Chiapas. Bull, who travels there twice a year, said he would love to see three or four trips taken every year.
This year, Bull is going down to a new clinic that has been built in the village of Palenque. He said he gives credit to all the other doctors who have self-funded trips to Chiapas, like Niagara Falls dentist Mario Violante, who has given the first dental care the people have ever received.
He said the nuns give invaluable help as well, such as Sister Beth Broesmer, the director of development at Stella Niagara, who organizes the trips, and Sister Hillary Davis, who serves as social worker there.
Why and when did you start traveling to Chiapas?
I was a physician for Stella Niagara, [which has] a mission in Chiapas, which was originally just a school, along with two other groups, and one day I was talking to one of the nuns and she was telling me about her work there. I was fascinated because I've traveled a lot. I find I always wanted to go into foreign service or something like that, so I was fascinated, and I asked the sister about the health care situation. From that moment on, the seed sort of sprouted and about six weeks later I was headed out on my first trip to Chiapas, and this [year's trip] will be our 14th mission.
Why are people in Chiapas not eligible for health care? It seems like a place with a lot of political turmoil from what I have read.
It's a very sad human rights situation. The indigenous people there are descendants of the Mayans and have rights to occupy the mountains there . . . but it was recently found that the mountains are rich in ore so, as you might guess, there's a financial interest [by the Mexican government]. They don't speak Spanish, and for the most part they are not well educated. They aren't vaccinated, and they are not people that could be put in urban areas and survive.
What kind of care do you give when you go down there?
It's definitely primary care. I might do minor surgeries to delivering a baby, really whatever is needed. There are tremendous amounts of tuberculosis because of the living conditions, malnutrition and parasitic illness in the food and water. We see a lot of degenerative arthritic problems and muscular skeletal problems that are from the very hard labor. In some areas, you'll go in and see they are actually farming uphill. These people work from sunup to sundown.
From a health perspective things are getting a little better. Earlier on, when I had more time, I spent a lot of time teaching. I would give classes on first aid and I actually taught how to build a latrine, which is something I'd never learned in medical school. I got the directions from the Red Cross and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I taught them the importance of boiling their water and covering their food.
Now I'll ask people what kind of water they use and they say, 'Only boiled.' We have a lot of problems with parasites. We saw patients whose legs had been chewed away by parasites so you could see just the tendons like a guitar string, and they are still walking around barefoot!
Any of us would be in the hospital with three antibiotics and probably be losing a leg and dying. Those people have such tremendous fortitude and incredible immune systems.
What does this do for your perspective on life, and what can you say to people who can't afford to travel out of the country for missions work?
It affects you in a way you know you'll be back again. It's a tremendously illuminating experience. But there are people who are volunteering to serve other needs here [in Niagara County]. They need to be encouraged, because they are surely making a difference in just as noble a way.