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Posts from the ‘Lee Folk’ Category

Changing Lives Update – Lee Folk ’10

(click image for a video update on Lee)

Back in September of 2010, Robert Morris University unveiled its “Change A Life” ad campaign. Through six TV commercials, 24 radio spots, and 38 billboards across the Pittsburgh region, the campaign featured stories of how RMU changes our students’ lives, and how they change the lives of others.

One of those stories was that of David Lee Folk ’10.

Lee studied nursing at RMU, graduating with honors in 2010. That year he also received the Presidential Transformational Award, the university’s highest undergraduate honor, given annually to a graduating student who has been transformed by his or her experience at Robert Morris and has also contributed to the transformation of the university in a meaningful way. He was also the inaugural winner of RMU’s Rising Star Award, given to a graduating senior who demonstrates academic success, individuality, determination, passion and potential in his or her field of study.

In the summer of 2009, Lee traveled to Nicaragua as part of a collaboration between RMU and the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI), led by University Professor Carl Ross, Ph.D., wherein students and faculty provide basic medical care to residents in the barrios of Managua.

“The people of Nicaragua touched my heart in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” he said. “To be honest, it’s still hard to look through the pictures without getting teary-eyed.” An avid and talented writer and photographer, Lee documented his experiences in a series of blog posts that portray, in searing detail, the deprivation of the Nicaraguans as well as the emotional toll that working with them sometimes exacts on the students and faculty.

One of these stories, “David and His Trumpet“, documented a Nicaraguan boy’s beloved trumpet, how it was stolen, how it was replaced thanks to Lee, and what it meant in the boy’s life.

Lee says being featured in RMU’s Change A Life campaign was a high point in his life, both personally and academically.

“It was humbling to be a visual part of such a large movement by the university to implement community service into student life,” he says. “I really enjoyed the whole process of creating the campaign, and it’s been such a thrill to see the ripple effects that it has had throughout the community.”

Following graduation, Lee spent a year at WVU’s Ruby Memorial Hospital, before joining the nursing team at St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. He also started back to school at RMU this past fall, where he’s pursuing his Doctorate of Nursing Practice to become a family nurse practitioner.

Lee believes the “Changing Lives” theme connected with so many people, particularly with the Pittsburgh public, because of the kind of people who populate this area.

“We take community very seriously, and it made people proud to see a local university cultivating that spirit of goodwill in its students. That translates to strong character in the future workforce as well as stronger communities. All in all, it gives everyone a great feeling about working together for the greater good, and a campaign that can translate that message is bound to be successful.”

_____

Written by Valentine J. Brkich

Watch this behind the scenes video for more on Lee and what he’s up to today.

Robert Morris launched the Change A Life advertising campaign in September 2010. The Change A Life TV commercials won a Gold ADDY Award from the Pittsburgh Advertising Federation, which gave a Silver ADDY to the Change A Life web site. The campaign won a silver medal for advertising campaigns in the national Circle of Excellence Awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. RMU also won a Silver Medal for video PSAs and commercial spots for the Change A Life ads. The web site also won a Silver CUPPIE in the category of electronic media/web site from the College and University Public Relations Association of Pennsylvania (CUPRAP) and a Golden Quill Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania for creative use of technology in storytelling.

Who has the football?

Another powerful story from Nicaragua.

Back Again

[The following is an excerpt from the blog of Lee Folk, RN, BSN, who graduated from the Robert Morris University School of Nursing in May of 2010. He was the recipient of the highest undergraduate award at RMU, the Presidential Transformational Award, given in recognition of his documentary journalism in Managua, Nicaragua. He is currently employed as a staff nurse on the trauma medical-surgical unit of West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia.]

NOTES FROM THE FIELD

Follow along on the journey of a small group of nursing students from Robert Morris University as they travel to Managua, Nicaragua, providing nursing care to some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. We’re in for an adventure, and it’s great to have you along for the ride!


Back Again


How to begin?
That nagging question flashes over and over in my mind, synchronized with the pace of the blinking cursor on the blank screen.
How to begin….how to begin…..how to begin….
Well, I suppose I should begin by saying hello to all my readers out there. Thanks for stopping by. I hope this blog entry finds you all happy and well.
At the moment, I’m sitting amidst a chaotic scene in my bedroom. My mother will tell you that this room is always a chaotic scene, but tonight, my surroundings have reached new depths of devastation. My fourth trip to Nicaragua looms on the horizon, and I am in the throws of preparation for another trip south. Once again, to my amazement, my passport hasn’t collected nearly as much dust as I always anticipated it would. Four trips to Nicaragua. Four stamps in the passport. In my mind’s eye, I can see many of my friends and family just shaking their heads.
Four trips to Central America in fourteen months?
I know. I’m shaking my head too.
So how did I end up in this wonderfully strange position? What in the world happened during those fourteen months to create all this commotion? That’s really an excellent question. So before I set out writing the next chapter of this crazy story, I think all of the new readers out there, and perhaps you veterans too, deserve a bit of a recap.
Don’t worry, the recap has illustrations . . .

For more, visit Lee’s blog, Notes From the Field.

The Mail from Managua

You’ve read a lot about, and a lot from, RMU nursing alumnus Lee Folk. You’ll be hearing a lot more about him as well in the coming weeks — and that’s all we’ll say for now. In the meantime, to read all his accounts of the trips his took to Nicaragua, click here and here. You can find his more recent posts here.

The Accidental Masterpiece

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Dear Readers,

I must apologize for the tremendous delay between chapters! I know many of you have asked if the series was over after the most recent entry. There were, in fact, two more entries I had planned to write as soon as we arrived home from Nicaragua. However, I began my RN position the very next day in Morgantown, and the adjustment to that position in the time since then has prevented me from completing them. So though I had the notes taken for these last entries, it’s taken me several weeks to sit down and write them out. I’m very sorry for leaving you all in the lurch. I hope to have the final entry out within another week or two. As always, thanks for reading! Enjoy the rest of Los Dos Davids!

Sincerely,

Lee

The Accidental Masterpiece

We’re coming to the end of my third trip to Nicaragua, and this Friday evening, for the first time during my twenty-five days in this country, I’m actually thinking about leaving my camera at the hotel. With Duane and Rob shooting constantly through their magnificent telephoto lenses, and Adam and Dino clicking away right behind them, I’ve grown intimidated in the presence of superior creativity. The sound of snapping shutters is part of the everyday soundtrack in the van. Someone will see something out their window, comment on it, and within a second, there are cameras pointed in that direction, with fingers set on rapid fire. If there is anything that has not been documented on this trip from at least five different angles, I have no idea what it is.

Being amongst so many talented photographers on this trip has prompted me to give some thought to this art form I’ve come to love so much. I’ve met quite a few photographers, and I’ve found that very few of them started out knowing they wanted to be photographers. More often, they stumbled into the field by accident. I know I did. I was fourteen when I began pleading with my parents to buy me a camcorder for Christmas. I’m not sure where the desire for a camcorder came from, or what exactly I planned to do with it. I just knew I wanted one. Christmas morning dawned that year and at the bottom of my pile of presents, I found something unexpected. It was an old Minolta camera, 35 mm with a detachable flash and a cleverly disguised trap door that held something Dad called film.

My father had clearly misunderstood. I didn’t want to take pictures. I wanted to make movies. I was opening this present at the dawn of the digital age, so the film camera already seemed antiquated. But my father informed me that this was actually his camera, a college necessity from his days at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It seemed more like a family heirloom than the ticket to my movie-making career, but I did appreciate the thought. Like most of the hobbies that sprung up in my mind overnight, Mom and Dad were treating this one with cautionary encouragement. I had dumped too many hobbies already: models, stamps, coins, baseball cards. Photography was bound to be next.

But oddly enough, the Minolta piqued my curiosity. I found myself intrigued by the possibilities that 24 exposures afforded me. After several rolls of botched negatives, I learned that 24 clicks went fast. Not everything was picture worthy. I only had 24 chances to capture something new, something funny, something beautiful. I can remember going for long walks after dinner the following spring with the Minolta in hand, loaded with a fresh roll of film and lots of ideas. I was soon measuring my shots out carefully. Since my meager finances would only buy me so much film at a time, I had to think about my shots before I took them. Sometimes I walked down to the railroad tracks by Chartiers Creek. I circled the statues around town and experimented with lights and shadows. One time, I stumbled upon a dead squirrel by the side of the road. An idea for an image popped into my head and I quickly ran home, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote out the following caption: Canonsburg Electricity: Keeping the Chipmunk Population Under Control. I ran back outside and laid the piece of paper next to the dead animal, and memorialized it in film. To most, the photo seemed adolescent. To me, it was art.

The next year, I saved enough of my Christmas tips from my paper route to purchase my first digital camera, a Panasonic DMC-LC33. It was an amazing little piece of technology, that Panasonic. I began to take pictures of everything and anything. The harder I worked at it, the more I saw how luck played into the equation of a great photograph. I found that I could spend an hour setting up a shot, hoping for the perfect light, waiting on the right breeze, and still walk away with nothing. Then there were moments when I would snap a photo haphazardly, on a whim, only to discover later that the image was one worth framing. Perhaps photographer Chuck Close phrased it best. “Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece.”

One day, when I was sixteen, my older sister was driving me home from a school event. It was late afternoon, and by the time we crested the hill coming into our town, there was a beautiful sunset taking shape. I was riding in the front seat, looking through photos I had taken that day. Seeing the view, I switched the camera back on and snapped a quick photo, accidentally clipping the McDonald’s sign in the foreground. The golden arches were framed black, silhouetted against a golden sky. I almost deleted the photo right there, but there was something about the photo that I liked. That year, I entered five of my favorite photos in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition. A few of my well-planned photos received merit awards. The one I took nearly by mistake, Golden Arches, won gold. I had my first accidental masterpiece.

In Nicaragua, it was the photographs that really prompted me to start writing Mail from Managua. At the end of my first day in the country, when I had downloaded my first batch of photos to my laptop, I was disheartened that these images would be practically meaningless unless the stories behind them were written down. When I began to write the stories of my first trip, I made it a rule to select one photograph that best summed up the story. I wanted my family and friends to reach the end of the story, see the photo, and think, Yep, that’s exactly what I pictured it would be. Shooting in a country of a million masterpieces, I quickly found that framing the photo was the easy part. Penning the stories, on the other hand, took some work.

On this trip, I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with an incredibly talented artist. It doesn’t take long being around the guy to see why Duane Reider is arguably the most talented and respected photographer in the city of Pittsburgh. He is flexible and creative. He can handle pressure. And most of all, he’s just fun to be around. Throughout the week, I’ve been watching him in action. On Monday night, while sitting by the brick oven of the local pizza joint, Duane and I talked shop. While he shared stories from his career, I held his iPhone in my hands and flipped through the albums on his website. Duane has rubbed shoulders with nearly every Pittsburgh sports hero of the past three decades. Some of them have even become personal friends. Mario Lemieux and Hines Ward stop by Duane’s place quite often, to talk sports and wine and business ventures.

With his level of expertise and creativity, one would assume that Duane started out an early age and always knew that photography was his calling. But that’s not the case. On the contrary, Duane was already nineteen when he first got a hold of a camera. He was asked by a friend to take a group photo of a softball team. At the time, he was a welder in Los Angeles with no real idea of what he wanted to do with his life. But the camera quickly grabbed his attention. “My friend took me in his darkroom to develop that first roll of film. And when that first image came out of the solution, it was like love at first sight. I knew I had to go buy a camera.” Like me, Duane never planned for photography. It just sort of happened. By accident.

As we sat there waiting for our pizza, my jaw hung open as I surveyed his portfolios. Every few photos, I stopped and gasped, held it up to him and said, “Wait, wait, wait….tell me the story behind this one.” Duane would chuckle, lift his glasses and squint at the photo. “Oh, that’s a great story! Let me tell ya!” Then he’d scoot up in his seat and explain how the photo was created. One photo in particular caught my eye. If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for more than a year, you’ve probably seen the now infamous photo of the Pittsburgh Steelers kneeling on the floor of their locker room, huddled in prayer before the 2005 AFC championship. It’s one of the most iconic NFL images of the past decade, and the man who pushed the shutter on it was Duane Reider. “So you took this photo?” I asked him in disbelief. “This photo was in every newspaper across the country!”

“Yeah, that was quite a moment actually,” Duane said casually. “Because, believe it or not, I was the first photographer allowed in to the Steelers locker room during the prayer. It had never been allowed before. But Dan Rooner told me to follow Jerome Bettis that whole day. At the time, everyone thought it may very well be the last game of his career. So when it came time for the team prayer, he told me to stay put. And it was so cold that day, I couldn’t feel my hands. I just steadied the camera against my stomach, spread my feet like a tripod, and then said a prayer and took a deep breath. Click. That was it, man. Instant history.”

Duane went on to tell me that it was this historic photo that saved his firehouse from the brink of foreclosure. At the time, he owed taxes on the building that he had no money for and he was going to be forced to give up on his dream of opening the Robert Clemente Museum. But thanks to the mistake of a young reporter named Kelly Fry, Duane’s financial worries vanished overnight. The WTAE reporter tracked him down to do a news story on the Steelers photograph that everyone wanted on their walls. Duane agreed to do the story, but on one condition. “I told Kelly, you can’t put my phone number in the story,” Duane said. “I don’t want to get crushed with phone calls.” But for whatever reason, the reporter neglected the request and when the story aired on the six o’clock news, Duane’s number was plastered across the screen. “Ten seconds later, I kid you not, every single light on our shop’s phone lit up. The phone never stopped ringing,” he said. “For six whole weeks.” When Duane finally replaced his phone number with a new one, the photo had made enough money to pay off all the debt. A copy of the image hangs in his studio, signed by each Steelers in the photo. Duane calls it his photography miracle. His accidental masterpiece.

Watching Duane work in Nicaragua has been an experience in itself. The wheels in his head are always turning. During our days here, he has often snapped a photo, and then waved me over to show me what he did and how he did it. He pins a profound take-home lesson onto the photos for me to use in my own practice. “Mastering photography isn’t about knowing how to use the light,” he told me at one point. “It’s about knowing how to take it away.” At another point he turned and said, “It’s really less about knowing the technicalities of the craft, and more about the relationship between the subject in front of the lens and the artist behind it.” These moments of on-the-job training are pretty special for me, since I’ve never had the opportunity to shadow someone of his experience. I nod my head, jot down notes, and after comparing my images to his, fight the urge to throw my camera down the closest manhole. Practice makes perfect, I keep telling myself. Duane Reider didn’t build his studio in a day.

Duane is right about the importance of relationships, though. In order to get the desired results, there has to be a groundwork laid between the photography and his subjects. For a child, it may involve engaging them in play or making the camera appear to be a toy. For a bride, their mind may need diverted from the stress of the day to the thought of the groom. For Duane and Rob, the barrio presents its own challenges. It’s been difficult to be delicate while shooting here, especially with the language barrier. Unfortunately, there is not really anything they can do to make their long telephoto lenses from being any less conspicuous. It’s hard to make people comfortable with such an invasion. We want the inhabitants of the barrio to act naturally for us, but the groundwork of relationship does not exist yet for these artists.

At one point during our scouting mission, we entered a woman’s small shack to check on a malnourished baby that Dr. Ross had evaluated a few weeks before. The woman had several other small children clamoring around her skirts. We were ushered through the house and into the dirt courtyard in the back. Two of the young girls were sitting in tiny chairs, with plates on their laps, eating rice and beans with their hands. Duane followed us into the yard, and when Dr. Ross began to assess the newborn, he pulled his camera up from its holster to snap some photos. One of the girls in the chairs began to shriek and ran into the safety of her mother’s skirts. I tried to hand her some candy, but the girl just kept wailing as she pointed in Duane’s direction. I looked over at our photographer. He had a puzzled look on his face.

“Why is she crying? Did we give her some candy?” Duane asked.

“Yeah, but I think she’s just scared of you.”

“Awe, we’re not going to hurt her.” Duane smiled and waved at the girl, her dirty face now smeared with the rivulets of big tears. She hid her face again.

“I don’t think it’s you, Duane. I think it’s the camera,” I said.

“The camera?”

“Well, to you and me, it’s just a camera. But to her, you’re a stranger in her yard, and when you lift that lens to your face, it looks just like you’re aiming a gun at her.” Duane looked down at the camera lens. It could be mistaken for a weapon. “Pretty scary for a three year old.”

“Oh yeah,” Duane nodded. “I didn’t even think of that. Man, now I feel bad.” Duane tucked the camera around his shoulder and exited the yard. My smaller camera was still looped around my shoulder. I picked up the plate of rice that the girl had abandoned and crouched down next to her.

“How bout some more rice, little lady?” She walked over to me and took the plate from my hands. I slid my camera down my arm and turned it on carefully. While she continued to sniff back tears, her brown eyes locked on Duane and his scary looking camera, I held my camera out in front of me, aimed the lens up toward her face and snapped a photograph.

And it wasn’t until tonight that I loaded the photos from that day to my laptop. That image of the girl in the yard just popped up on the screen and made me smile. It’s happened again. A wonderful stroke of luck. Duane left that yard just a second too soon. The accidental masterpiece was right in front of us all along.

Los Dos Davids — Thoughts on Tears

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Dear Lee, Please stop making me cry with these stories!

It’s probably the most common comment I’ve received back from my readers since I began sending out these accounts one year ago. While it’s certainly never been my intent to stimulate the tear ducts with my writing, it has sparked some thoughts toward the cultural perception of tears. Some cultural groups pride themselves on their stoicism. Weeping indicates weakness; stoicism signifies strength. Other cultures dive right into tears. The act of crying, outside of mourning, is seen as the physical emission of love and compassion. Most of us, you and I, fall somewhere along the spectrum.

For me, once I reached my teen years, crying was an extremely rare occurrence, reserved for total physical or emotional distress. However, when I started nursing school, I noticed a change. Perhaps my increased exposure to the sick and dying was making me appreciate simple things to a much greater degree. Or perhaps I was learning how big the world was and seeing simple miracles amidst everyday life. One of my guy friends recently asked me if I would consider him any less of a man if he admitted to crying over some of the stories I shared from the barrio. I told him that was ridiculous. It’s a shame to me that our society molds many men into a mentality like that. A tearful reaction is anything but wimpy. On the contrary, it shows us that are our hearts are still beating. It shows us we still care. We still love. We are still human.

I will never forget my first night home from my first trip to Nicaragua. I opened our refrigerator and saw all of the food we had. The tears started streaming. I was powerless to stop them. This trip has been so different from my first two though. On this trip, the focus has not really been on the healthcare of the people here. We aren’t getting involved to that degree. Instead, we’ve been doing something exciting, something hopeful. It’s been new and different and honestly, a lot of fun. Everyone’s having a wonderful time. To date, this crew, a team of mostly men, has shed very few tears. And by mid-week, I thought it peculiar enough to jot it down in my notebook. “Wednesday morning – still nothing to cry about!”

~

Throughout the week, I’ve received several emails from my parents and the McCaffertys about the status of my second Nicaraguan family, the Ramos-Medina family. I have seen them, in fact, and our reunion early in the week was one of the brightest highlights of the trip so far. On Monday, as we wrapped up our site-scouting mission, Duane and I had found ourselves trailing behind the camera crew. David was walking with us, so I felt comfortable being on our own.

“Duane, let’s go visit my family from the last trip,” I told him.

“You sure you to go without the crew?” he asked.

“I’d actually prefer to. I really don’t want to barge in with cameras and all that. I want to surprise them.” I handed him my camera as we turned the corner where Alvaro and the family live. It was Santos who spotted me first.

“Lee!” she waved.”Es Lee!” I waved back.

“Buenos dias!” I shouted. I could see Little Francisco hanging over the wire fence, too. He ran out into the street and jumped into me. “Francisco! Come esta?! Oh my goodness, you’re huge!” He just buried his face in my scrubs, obviously still a very shy kid. Walking into the family yard, I looked around for the man of the house, Alvaro. He peeked out from inside the hut to see what the commotion was all about. Seeing me, he ran out into the sun. He said something in Spanish, but it was lost in the monster hug he gave me. He looked exactly how we left him: shirtless, unwashed and unshaven, with gaping holes in his teeth and severely crossed eyes. But he was still the most affectionate, gracious character I had met in the barrio. I called David over to translate because Alvaro was talking a mile a minute.

“Um, he says that he never thought he would see you again, but they never stopped hoping,” David told me. “And they can’t believe you are actually standing here!” Alvaro grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the threshold of the tiny house where Ashlee and I had written our farewell into the walls with a Sharpie on our last day with them. He pointed to the messages gleefully and then back to me. I nodded my head and laughed.

“Tell him I remember very well! And tell him Ashlee wishes she could be here today too.” Alvaro then pulled me into the house. He pointed proudly to the Christmas wreath we’d given him. His face grew serious as he pointed at the mattresses we had purchased for the kids. Already, they were worn down, filthy after just eight months of use. I nodded. Then Alvaro pointed to his face. It seemed he was telling me that the glasses we had given him were gone, but I couldn’t understand the rest of what he said. “David, ask him if he will come to the clinic tomorrow afternoon. Doc and I will be there, and we can talk about his eyesight. And tell him I brought him something that I think will help.” David nodded and explained that to Alvaro. Duane had been shooting photos this whole time outside.

“Lee, we should probably be getting back,” he called into the shack.

“Yeah, you’re right. Alvaro, Miércoles, bueno?”

“Miércoles?” he clarified.

“Si! En la clinica.” He nodded vigorously and wrapped his arms around me again. I really didn’t want to leave so soon after getting there, but I knew I’d be back.

Wednesday’s filming went much later than we expected. I never saw Alvaro show up at the clinic during the time we were filming there. However, just as we were packing up the van with all the equipment, Alvaro appeared at the top of the street atop his rusty bicycle. He waved to me and pedaled down to deliver something. Stuffed into his chest pocket were a pile of papers. He pulled them out and handed them over. There were letters addressed to me and Ashlee, as well as two family photos.

I called Dr. Ross over to see if he could do a quick evaluation of the man’s eyes. Doc asked him what happened to the glasses we gave him, and Alvaro looked to the ground, almost ashamed to tell us. After some coaxing, we got him to tell us. Just a few weeks after we left, Alvaro had been biking home to the barrio after looking for a job all day. The far-sighted electrician was desperate for work to feed his children. It was getting dark when a gang started chasing him, trying to mug him, as if this poor man with tattered clothing would be carrying some great sum of money. His bike hit a pothole, and the glasses flew off his face. They landed in the road, where they were crushed by a passing car. Alvaro returned home that night with no money, no job, and now no glasses.

As he told us the story there in the road, I grew more and more furious with the thugs that live in this place. What kind of heartless skeleton of a creep does something like that to a desperate man like this? I promised Alvaro that we would back in the morning and we would help him get another pair. Then I hugged him goodbye. On the ride home, I tried to look out the window and block out the image of our terrified father pedaling away from a bunch of muggers. And for the first time this week, there were hot tears stinging my eyes.

Sometimes, this place is just simply wretched.

~

One of the most distinctive features of the Sol y Luna hotel was the circular pit in the center of the hotel lobby. I say was because it’s no longer there. Yes, it’s true. The pit has been filled in and covered with hardwood. All the furniture of the lobby has been rearranged over top. When we arrived on Sunday night, I had stopped dead in my tracks with my suitcase in hand.

“Where’s the pit?!” I cried. Dr. Ross came up beside me.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. The owner fell into the pit a few months back and broke her leg. It finally convinced her that it was a safety hazard. So no more pit.”

“But I liked the pit!” I argued, as if it would make any difference. The pit was where the Christmas tree used to be set up. The pit was where we held many of our post-conferences at the end of clinical days. The pit rocked. But it’s gone now, so I’ve decided to give the new arrangement a try this Thursday morning.

I sit down on the couch to check my email, hoping that the wireless Internet is up and running today. Dino is sitting across from me, looking through photos he’s loaded onto his Macbook. After several minutes, I notice he seems to be worried about something. He’s looked over at the front door seven times since I sat down. “Where are those guys?” he asks no one in particular. “They were supposed to be back by now.”

“Dino, relax, man.” I tell him. “I’m sure they’re just stuck in traffic.” It’s almost time for breakfast, and we’re waiting on Duane and Rob to return with Edgar. They’ve somehow talked our overly gracious translator into picking them up at 6 AM for the past two days to take them out into Managua to capture the chaotic traffic jams that lock up the city streets. It’s the daily bane of many motorists, but for guys like Duane and Rob, it’s a photographic paradise.

“Well, they were supposed to be back by now.”

“Dino, they’re fine. You worry too much.”

“I do worry a lot,” he agrees. “My wife, she always tells me that I’m the Italian grandmother she never wanted. Like I’m always thinking of disaster scenarios. What if they slipped and fell and now they’re in the hospital? What if they got caught in a mudslide? How would they reach us? Our cell phones don’t work down here. How would we know?”

“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like my mom,” I tell him. He goes back to looking through photos. A few minutes later, the three guys walk through the door. Dino looks up. “What happened!” Rob looks at him, puzzled.

“What do you mean what happened? Do you know how crazy the traffic is at this hour?”

“What? Just traffic?” I say with mock surprise. “No mudslides?”

The call comes for breakfast in the dining area. We have to get on the road soon if we want to stay on schedule. Though we will be here in Managua until Sunday, today will be our final visit to the barrio. Our luck has held with the weather, so we will not need to use Friday as a backup “rain day”. Jeff has already shot six hours of footage, all of which will have to be condensed down into 60-second and 30-second TV spots. All of this is good news, but on the flip side, it means an early goodbye for David and all our barrio friends.

David greets us at the gated porch when we arrive at his home. Looking past him into the house, I can see the women of the house scurrying about; making sure everything is as clean as possible. Juliet flies onto the porch and starts making rounds, administering hugs to the entire crew. Mrs. Espinoza ushers everyone into the common room. Anita takes the lead in communicating with David’s mother, explaining to her how tremendously grateful all of us are for his willingness to help us with our campaign. I’m not sure whether David and his mother knew he was getting paid, but the university has written him a check to compensate him for his hard work this week. The boy has earned five hundred American dollars for his part in the commercial. When David’s mother sees the number, she leans her head on David’s shoulder and starts to weep. David is speechless. This check will cover nearly two years of his college tuition in Nicaragua. For this family, it’s a gigantic boost to their tight finances. For us, it’s a tremendous honor to be the ones who give it to him.

I know the guys in this room are attached to this family too. Several of them have slipped cash to David and his sisters. It’s just one small way we can tell them how proud we are of each of them. After a few minutes of tearful goodbyes, we gather for group photos together on the porch. Because this check is so large and the neighborhood is so dangerous, we want to take David straight to the bank to deposit the money safely into his account. We don’t have to say goodbye to him yet, but I will not see his sisters and mother again, at least for quite some time. I’m not sure what his mother is saying to me, but she holds onto me for a long moment before letting go. This woman has turned the entire Change A Life project around for me, transforming it from something I was asked to be a part of into something I want to be a part of. I’m really going to miss her.

We have a few more stops to make after filing out of David’s house. Several girls from previous trips have given me gifts and messages to deliver to their families. People here love to receive photos we send back to them of our time spent with them. On Monday morning, for example, I pulled out photos for Don Pedro that our team took in November, and the man’s face just lit up, particularly at the sight of his faithful American co-pilot, Megan Cowden. The two of them kept all of us entertained the entire week with their hysterically bizarre cross-cultural jokes. It’s great to see that Don Pedro remembers the moments as fondly as all of us do.

I have a big plastic bag with me, filled with gifts to distribute. I need to deliver a Spanish Bible sent from Colby for her mother. Brianne sent back a photo album. I have letters and money for Megan’s family. There is a letter for our family from Ashlee, as well. And since everyone back home will want updates on their families, we stop in at several homes just to say hi and pass along the student’s greetings. I’m excited to get to my family’s home today. I have something special for Alvaro.

Francisco peeks out from inside the house when we arrive. There are more strangers in his yard than before. Larkin, Kyle, and Doug have joined us. I pass off my camera to Larkin to get some photos so that Ashlee will be able to see that everyone is healthy and smiling. Gabriella and Christian are off at school this morning, leaving Francisco and Kathia to accept all the presents. I could only bring small things for them: jump ropes and sidewalk chalk and balls and Matchbox cars. Mom sent down a nice body scrub for Santos. And for Alvaro, I have something to help remedy his eyesight issue. Since he is an electrician by trade, I brought a free-standing magnifying glass that he could use to help him see the wiring of his appliances. His eyes light up when I take it out of the bag and demonstrate how to use it. He motions to his table behind the house and beckons for me to sit down with the magnifying glass. Then he hands me a screwdriver and waves to Larkin.

“Un foto!” he says, grinning.

“He wants to have a picture of Lee at his worktable,” Dr. Ross tells Larkin. Larkin leans forward to take the photo of me pretending to unscrew a blender. My dad will get a kick out of this one. Everyone knows I haven’t the slightest clue how to fix anything. Those genes skipped a generation.

Unfortunately, we have to keep moving through the barrio to get to David’s house. I present Alvaro and Santos with letters from both Ashlee and myself, along with a money gift from their RMU nurses. I urge Alvaro to use the money for new mattresses and eyeglasses and whatever other pressing needs they have. His eyes have already welled up with tears, and he buries his face into my arm. He says something to Dr. Ross. “He wants you to know that you coming to see them means more to them than the money. And they can’t thank you and Ashlee enough.” More tears are coming for me, too.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Tell them that Ashlee is getting married very soon, in October!” Dr. Ross relays the message and both the parents’ faces beam with pride, as brightly as if their own daughter were betrothed. This happy news calls for another round of hugs as they wish the happiest blessings upon Ashlee and tell me to take their love home. They don’t want her to forget them, either. I tell Doc to assure them she never has, and never will. No one ever forgets their Nicaraguan family.

~

This is my first trip to a Nicaraguan bank. David’s savings account is registered with the Banco de America Central, the major banking chain in Nicaragua. The BCA built one of its continental headquarters just a mile or so from our hotel in Managua, and there are branch chains all over the city, recognizable by their trademark insignia of a red lion’s head. Don Pedro has dropped David, Edgar, and me off at the BCA location in the Metro Center mall, the same shopping center where we often eaten lunch on typical clinical days. As we’re walking inside, we pass a Claro kiosk near the entrance.

“Hey, David! Look, its Claro! Sell me a cell phone!” I tease him.

“Oh no! You will buy one and then call me at the call center only to complain!” he laughs. “Like everyone else!” The kid doesn’t relish his job at the call center. During the course of his night shift at the telecommunications center, it’s typical for him to field the insults of dozens of berating customers per night. Even for someone as positive and upbeat as David, it’s a difficult way to earn money.

The entrance of the bank is flanked by guards, which does not surprise me. Just about every public place in Managua stations guards at the entrance. Even the Peace Park is patrolled by rifle-toting security personnel. However, here at the bank, we are also wanded down by the guard. When I try to walk in, the man stops me, points at my camera, and then toward a locked cabinet. I’m given a card in exchange for the camera. I can pick it up when I come out.

“Wow, this place is guarded like a prison,” I whisper to Edgar.

“Yeah, they really take security seriously here,” he replies. “You wouldn’t believe the things that typically happen here. You’re not allowed to talk on your cell phone in line. Thieves will listen to how much people are depositing, then call their guys outside and describe what they’re wearing so they can mug them when they get to their car.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, it happens all the time. Luckily, the BCA has all sorts of rules now. Like, when it’s David’s turn to come to the window, you and I won’t be allowed to stand there with him. As far as they’re concerned, David could be our hostage and we are holding him at knife point. So they’ll ask us to move on.” Sure enough, when it comes time for David to see the teller, Edgar and I are directed to move to the back of the lobby to wait. There we stand while David deposits his check. Five minutes later, David walks over to us, accompanied with a BCA employee. “What’s the problem?” Edgar asks.

“They say that I have an account only for cordobas. And this check is in dollars.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. “What do you have to do to get it deposited?”

“I have to open an account for American dollars,” David tells us. Edgar sighs.

“How long will that take, Edgar?” I ask.

“At least an hour. Opening a new account is really time-consuming.” I know that we don’t have an hour to wait. We have a limited time to see the sights in Managua, and the film crew is already anxious to get moving. Just then, Dr. Ross appears at the door of the bank. Security wands him and lets him in.

“What’s the story?” he asks. “Did you get it deposited?”

“He has to open a new account to be able to deposit it.”

“Okay. That’s going to take a while, huh?” He thinks for a moment. “What if we gave you money for a cab back home? Are you comfortable staying here to open the account?” Dr. Ross asks. David nods. “Okay, do you have what you need to open the account today?” Edgar asks the bank representative. The employee tells us that all David needs are two Nicaraguan references. That won’t be a problem. Both Edgar and Don Pedro can vouch for him. Dr. Ross leaves to send Don Pedro in. A few minutes later, as our driver and translator are sitting at a table filling out David’s reference papers, I broach the subject of saying goodbye.

“When are you coming back?” David asks bluntly.

“I don’t really know, David. I didn’t know the first two times either.”

“November?”

“I can’t promise that. You know I have my nursing job starting when I get back.”

“But you will come back as soon as you can?”

“As soon as I can, yes, I’ll come back. But in the meantime, you keep studying, and keep working hard. We’re all so proud of you. Here, take this money for the cab ride.”

Edgar walks over to join us. The forms are all in order. David grows uncharacteristically quiet. “David, you okay?” I ask. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to tell me in English. He mutters something to Edgar in Spanish in a lowered voice. Edgar leans over to me.

“He says he feels horrible that he has to say goodbye to you in the middle of a bank.”

I understand his frustration. I didn’t want to part ways here in the bank either. I put my hand on his shoulder. “David, look at me.” He reluctantly looks up from his shoes.”Listen, I didn’t want to say goodbye here either. But it’s really important that this money gets to you safely and securely. Okay? It’s your money. You earned it.”

“Yes,” he mumbles. “but the money is not as important as the friendship.”

His words hit me right in my gut. This 19-year-old just made more money in one week than he usually makes in one year. But it seems that he couldn’t care less. He just didn’t want to have to say goodbye in a bank. He hugs me tightly, wiping his eyes with his fists. “Come back soon please,” he says in my ear.

“I will, brother. I will do my best. I promise.”

I retrieve my camera from the security guard and step out the glass doors with Edgar into the main corridor of the mall. David watches me walk away, standing there alone in the lobby of the BCA with his personal check from Robert Morris University. I turn around for one last look. That kid is the hero of the whole barrio, I think to myself. He’s my hero, anyway. I grin and wave at my friend. He waves back, smiling. And then I turn and walk quickly away.

I’ve already stated my thoughts on tears, having settled the argument that there ought to be no shame in shedding them over those you love. I stand by that. And so there’s a simple reason that I didn’t want David to see me cry today.

I wanted his last memory of me to be a smile.

Lights! Camera! Chickens?

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

It’s still dark outside when my phone alarm goes off at 5 AM. I hear Dr. Ross sit up on the side of his bed. “Is it seriously time to get up?” I mutter into my pillow.

“It’s your own fault.” Dr. Ross says, rubbing his eyes. “I’m blaming you for having to get up this early.” I start to laugh.

“Oh please. My fault?”

“Yeah, you had to go and write all those stories. Now we had to come and make a commercial and get up at 5 AM to do it.”

“Oh, yeah right! Well I wouldn’t have even written those stories if you hadn’t insisted that I come down here in the first place. This is totally your fault.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“No, Jeff is ridiculous. This was his idea wasn’t it? To be in the barrio by six in the morning?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I agree, sitting up in bed. “So is he insane or what?”

“I think he might be.” Jeff had insisted at the production meeting last night that we be out the door in time to be at the location by 6 AM. After walking all over the barrio on Monday, Jeff had finally settled on his choice for the scrim shot, an avenue of the neighborhood that would give him enough “expanse” for the big reveal shot of the commercial. The major concern though was getting the key shot before the sun rose too high. If the light became too harsh, he wouldn’t get the shot he wanted. So to beat the sun, we had to start setting up by 6 AM. This would be the earliest that Dr. Ross and I had ever been in the barrio. And we aren’t too keen on the idea.

Thankfully, there is no rain falling this morning. The weather has been one of the major concerns with filming outdoors here in Managua during the rainy season. It’s rained each day we’ve been here, but the precipitation arrives like clockwork each afternoon between three and four. It pours for half an hour or so and then stops. Hopefully, our luck will hold out today, too.

Rush hour in Managua clogs the streets by seven o’clock, but right now, they remain fairly empty. I went without breakfast this morning, feeling more nervous today that I have at any point during the trip. With the amount of preparation needed to get this complex shot, we will most likely only get one shot at making it happen. I try to block out the calculations going on in my head about how much the university is spending to get all of us down here. There will be any number of variables that could inhibit our success, and I really don’t want to be one of them. Before this morning, I always thought it would be cool to spend a day in Tom Hank’s shoes. Not today. With this kind of stress, Hanks can keep his dumb shoes.

The crew is all dressed in the vibrant red production t-shirts that Kyle has provided for them. They have the Change A Life logo across the front, and on the back, the titles and locations of each commercial shoot is listed. Ours runs across the bottom: “Nicaragua Trumpet” it’s called. In addition to the shirts, we’ve also been given all-access passes to wear on the set that read “RMU Road Crew.” Kyle has certainly spared no expense in making us al feel professional and important. I’m not sure what kind of special access this pass gives me, but it still feels neat to wear.

Don Pedro takes us directly to the spot where we will be shooting. After unloading the equipment, the prep work begins. Anita, Jeff, and Adam begin by laying out a black tarp on the dirt road before laying out the skeleton for the scrim. It’s important that the red fabric stay as clean as possible. Dino calls me over to strap on the wretched microphone belt before I start to perspire too much. Doc is sent to wake David, who has been allowed to sleep in because he had to work at the Claro call center until midnight. Ray wanted him to be able to rest as long as possible. Lucky duck.

Once I’ve been wired for sound, I walk over to Larkin and Doug. They both seem to be deep in artistic thought. “What do you think, Doug?” I ask. “Are we in the right spot?”

“I think so, yeah. I guess we’ll find out soon, huh?” Ray walks over to us, grips my shoulder, and extends his trademark handshake.

“The best advice I can give you, Lee,” he said. “Just try not to think about the fact that everything depends on you right now.”

“Yeah, Lee, no pressure at all.” Larkin kids. “Just don’t mess this up.” These guys are brutal.

The camera has been set up next to a giant pile of dark gravel, facing down the street toward the intersection where the sewage canal begins. About twenty yards from the scrim site, the road starts to move uphill, a dimensional feature that Jeff was looking for. A few other qualities make this a great spot. There’s a giant pile of truck tires spilling into the road. On the other side sits a giant rusty septic tank. Near the drainage ditch, a grey horse is standing guard over a giant mud puddle, hitched to a wooden cart. The poor animal looks pretty depressed to me. When I frame the whole shot with my hands from the spot of the camera, the scene does seem to sum up the essence of the barrio environment nicely. Jeff knows what he’s doing.

In addition to everything that already in place, however, there are few small adjustments that the art crew wants to make. This they call “tweeking the set”. We certainly don’t want to create a scene that is fake, but we do want the viewer to see as much of the barrio life as possible during the five seconds over which this final scene will play. Jeff has made a wish list of little things he’d like to have in the shot. A smoking fire, a children’s soccer game, a cluster of feeding chickens: all of them sights that are seen quite frequently throughout this neighborhood. The task of making all of this happen is delegated to Kyle and the translators. Our PR professional has already grabbed Marcela and taken off for the market to see how many chickens can be purchased for fifty dollars. All of the craziest tasks seem to fall on Kyle, but she’s determined to do whatever it takes to make this production happen.

Meanwhile, my only job so far has been to stay out of the sun and well hydrated. This only serves to make me more nervous. The guys carry over the constructed scrim to the spot where it will stand, and they go to work covering the back of it with the tarp so the sun won’t reveal the scaffolding. The crowd of curious onlookers quickly grows as the set starts to take shape. It’s not every day that an American film crew sets up shop in their backyard. In fact, this is probably the very first time that anything like has ever happened here.

David appears around the corner with Dr. Ross, waving to everyone. The two of us have some time to hang out, and we pass out candy to the kids and kick the soccer ball around. The sun continues to rise higher, and its rays are growing hot. I really hope we are getting close to rolling tape, because it’s starting to feel very late in the morning. Ray seems to share that sentiment. I ask him how he’s feeling. “Oh, this is always the hardest part for me,” he says. “You just want the director to start filming something. But he has to be comfortable first. Everything has to be just right before he pulls that trigger.” He is right about that. Jeff has been at the camera for an hour now, looking through the lens, then calling out adjustments, then checking again.

The white van appears down the road again, carrying our chicken negotiating team. Everyone is curious to see how the chicken mission went. When the women hop out, Kyle is triumphantly holding a giant garbage bag. “We got eleven!” she exclaims. “Eleven chickens for fifty bucks! What a deal!” Anita has also purchased several new soccer balls, and she dispenses one to the care of our eager extras. They are instructed to begin playing gently on the side of the road. Then Anita starts to sprinkle feed across the ground to keep our fowl interested in our little film for a while. “Where do you want your chickens, Jeff?”

“Right there in front of the camera would be great,” he says casually. I lean over to Doug.

“Did we seriously just buy our own chickens to insert into the scene?” I ask.

“Yup. We are totally going to break the two golden rules of filmmaking today,” he replies.

“Two golden rules?”

“Yeah. Never work with children, and never work with animals,” he says, laughing. “This should be interesting all right.”

“The real question,” adds Larkin, “is whether or not we will be eating those chickens later tonight.”

Our translators have both sprung into action to get Jeff everything he wanted. While Marcela helps free the chickens from their nets, Edgar is busy starting a fire. The local residents have loaned us their small fire pit to burn some green branches, enough to create a small plume of smoke behind the scrim. Jeff also asks Dr. Ross to walk down the road and ask the owners of the horse to lead their sad animal forward a few strides. At long last, after nearly four hours of preparation, Jeff is finally ready for the two Davids.

“Okay, guys, let’s get you in front of the scrim.” David and I step in front of the big red square, me in my blue RMU scrubs and David in his new gray shirt. He’s got his trumpet and I have my stethoscope. Jeff calls us into our first acting huddle. “All right, both of you take a deep breath. This is going to be easy.” I groan inwardly. He is just saying that. Jeff goes on to explain what the viewer will see and what exactly he needs us to do when we receive our cue. For our first several takes, I will deliver the tail end of my final line: But he’s the one who is unforgettable. This line refers to David, of course, and once I deliver that line, David is to nudge me from the side and “make me aware” of his presence. By this point, Jeff will have zoomed out from my face to reveal the chaotic activity going on around David and me. Jeff reassures us once more not to be nervous, then jogs back to the camera. I look at David. Compared to yesterday, he doesn’t seem nervous at all. He must be getting used to this.

“You understand what he wants you to do?” I ask.

“I think so. Take one, yes?”

“Yup, take one. The first of many, I’m betting.”

“Okay! Here we go, everyone!” Anita calls out. She has two young girls standing by her side, extras that she will send walking in front of the camera when Jeff gives the nod. Once they cross the camera, David and I have our cue. I take a deep breath and take a look around. The crowd behind the camera is all smiles. Eleven chickens are pecking happily at their feed. The smoke rises behind us, and the depressed horse stares glibly at its reflection in the mud puddle. This is totally insane, I think to myself. How in the world did they talk me into this? All of a sudden, Jeff nods. The girls cross the camera. My one line evaporates from my mind. Then a split second later, it’s back.

“But he’s the one that’s unforgettable,” I blurt out. I wait for David to nudge me. He doesn’t. I look over and he’s standing there, staring at me.

“What do I do now?” he asks. The expression on his face is hysterical. I burst out laughing.

“Okay, take two, everybody!” I shout to the barrio.

It’s going to be a long day.

It seems like the day has stretched on forever since we arrived in the barrio. David and I acted out the final scene of the commercial over and over and over again, so many times that we began to feel stupid about ourselves. Jeff kept telling us just to hang loose and act natural, but neither David nor I felt anything close to loose and natural in front of a rolling camera and several dozen onlookers. Finally, though, Jeff was satisfied with our work and we closed up shop on the crucial last shot. Duane organized everyone who had come out to watch us into one giant group photo, capturing many smiling faces of all shapes and sizes. The surrounding neighbors had been so helpful throughout the morning. Anita and Dr. Ross did their best to compensate each and every one of them to show our appreciation for tolerating our brief invasion. Then it was off to the clinic for lunch and several more hours of shooting. Supplementary footage was filmed of me triaging patients in the clinic, Dr. Ross treating them in his exam room, and both of us discussing cases during a post-conference. Then David and I were positioned out onto the veranda of the clinic to film a scene of us talking about the day he received his trumpet. By the time we moved up to David’s house, it was clear that everyone was on the tail end of their energy reserves.

“Adelante! Adelante! Bienvenido! Bienvenido!” David’s mother throws open the front door to the house to me and the film crew. Before I can climb the porch steps to greet her, I am caught by Judith, David’s 13-year-old sister. Judith is the tightest hugger I know, and she loves to surprise me with them. Since arriving back in the barrio on Monday, each time she has seen me, the young teen has latched onto my waist and tried to squeeze all the breath from my lungs. Judith bears a strong resemblance to her older brother, flashing the same broad grin to everyone she meets. David’s other sister, 17-year-old Laurita, has a rounder face, but the same long black hair as Judith and beautiful eyes. She’s a bit shyer than the exuberant Judith, but every bit as hospitable. It’s David’s mother, however, who beams the brightest. She kisses me on the cheek and wraps her arms around my neck. “Has vuelto!” she laughs, squeezing me even harder than Judith.

“Si, has vuelto! I’m back!”I laugh with her. She pulls back from me and studies my face carefully as if checking me over for scratches or dents. I have only met this woman once before, during my November trip, but she has heard much about me from her son, and she welcomes me home as family. I scan the front room of David’s house. The Espinozas are able to live in an actual house, a much more stable and spacious structure than most of the surrounding dwellings of the barrio. And it is immaculately clean. I can tell Mrs. Espinoza has been expecting us. The framed photos of David and me that I gave him on my last trip are proudly displayed in the center of the family table. There is music playing from the stereo along the wall. It’s a wonderful reassurance to see that my Nicaraguan friend has four solid walls around him and his family at night. That’s more than most people here have.

While we are talking, the film guys call David outside in the street. They’ve set up the scrim in the street and they want to get one final shot before the rain starts falling. The shot will be easy. All Jeff wants David to do is stand in front of the red square and play the trumpet for a few minutes. Judith and Laurita have put on their best outfits to welcome us. Larkin, who has proven to be keenly sensitive to our influence on the people here, asks Jeff to incorporate them into the shot as well. Everyone agrees, and the girls are placed on camera as onlookers. They are thrilled. Soon, David’s house is empty except for me and Marsela and Mrs. Espinoza. She insists that we both sit down in her rocking chairs. She pulls out chilled cans of apple juice from the fridge and serves them to us, then sits next to me and asks about my family back home.

“Oh, please tell her that they are all doing well!” I ask Marcela. “And I gave David a photo of my whole family this time, too.” She relays the message. “Would you mind if I asked her a few questions about David and his sisters?”

“Absolutely,” Marcela says. “What do you want me to ask her?”

“Well, please compliment her on David first of all, and the girls. They are amazing kids. My classmates and I have been so blessed by David. Maybe you could ask her how she managed to raise three kids so well here in the barrio?” Marcela translates my message and David’s mom nods eagerly. She begins to speak, and for several minutes, she and Marcela discuss back and forth as I sip my apple juice. Marcela grows quiet and listens intently. Finally, she turns back to me.

“Lee, this woman is incredible,” she tells me. “It seems like David’s father has been out of the picture since he was one year old, and she says he has never wanted any part of raising him or his sisters. So she’s been raising these kids all by herself since then. She says she works hard to provide the best life she can for them, and she has sacrificed everything in order for them to attend a private school. I asked her why and she said that the government schools don’t teach the kids anything but how to get into trouble. She didn’t want her children to go down that path, so she invested in their education. She is very proud of David, too. He doesn’t smoke or drink or hang around with the gangs. He sticks up for his sisters and helps his neighbors. She says he has worked since he was fourteen and takes his role as man of the house very seriously. She was crushed when his trumpet was stolen, and now, not only to have one again, but also to to have all of these exciting things with RMU happen to him, she is just happier than can express.”

It shouldn’t surprise me to hear all of this, knowing what I know about David, but yet it does. I had no idea that I had so much in common with this kid. My father never abandoned me at any point in life, but I know very well what both my parents gave up in order for me to have a private Christian education. They kept me from a public education for the very same reasons, wanting to be able to raise me with the morals and values that would guide me away from the social dangers I could easily stumble into. I just never anticipated I would find David’s mother to possess the same force of determination as my own mom. It’s difficult enough to raise physically healthy children in Nicaragua. Raising them to live their lives with responsibility and morals is even harder. But David’s mother made up her mind to do just that, right here in one of the most dangerous and impoverished areas of the city. And she has succeeded in an incredible way.

Outside, we can hear the notes of David’s trumpet rising over the approaching thunder. It’s about to rain. Sure enough, moments later, the daily downpour begins and our day of shooting takes an early wrap. The video crew comes pouring into the house, seeking shelter for themselves and the equipment. But all the wet heads wear bright smiles. Somehow, we’ve managed to get the bulk of all the needed footage in one long day of hard work. It’s been a great day. There’s just one last thing to do that can be done right here in the Espinoza family home. Dino sets up the sound equipment to record David reading voiceover lines that may be used in the commercial. Anita ushers everyone but David, Ray, and Dino out on to the gated porch. They need the room as quiet as possible.

Outside, I hop up on the hood of the rusty, broken down shell of car that hasn’t run a long time, one of the luxuries that Mrs. Espinoza gave up for her three kids many years ago. For me, this moment in the middle of the rain moves me deeply. For six months, I’ve lost sleep over this whole idea, remaining skeptical about the purpose of this commercial. I’ve questioned my motives. I’ve doubted the people in charge. I’ve prayed over and over again that this project would not result in any harm to David or his family, and that we wouldn’t be seen as taking advantage of their difficult situation. But when I look over at this boy’s proud mother, sitting in her chair, flanked by her two daughters, I feel at peace about the Change A Life campaign for the very first time. She rocks back and forth gently with her eyes closed, a huge smile spread across her face. Everything she gave up over the past nineteen years for her children must seem so trivial in this moment of maternal pride. All of her sweat and all of her tears can wash away with the rain today. Someone from the world outside the barrio finally discovered the amazing qualities that her son possesses, ones that she always knew were there. And now there is a film crew in her house, here to take his story home to America to inspire others. Yes, it was worth it all right. Some moments in life are simply so special you want them to stretch on forever.

This is one of those moments.

Los Dos Davids — Holy Mackerel!

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Duane Reider’s photography studio was not at all what I expected. Several months before we took off for Nicaragua, I had been asked to meet Larkin and Doug down at an old firehouse on the far edge of the Strip District to shoot photos for the RMU campaign. When I parked at the address they gave me, I found myself staring up at a three story stone building that resembled a fire station. It was a fire station, in fact, and a beautiful one at that. It had not housed fire trucks under its roof for many years, having been decommissioned in the 1970s after the fire chief of Pittsburgh purchased new trucks without measuring their dimensions. When the rigs arrived, it was discovered that they could not fit in the garage. So the city had to build new firehouses, leaving some of the city’s most historic buildings in Pittsburgh abandoned. Many years passed before Duane Reider, an up-and-coming photographer, saw the potential for investment and decided to purchase the Lawrenceville property. Not only would it be a wonderful place for a giant studio, he thought, but also the ideal spot for a much larger endeavor: the Robert Clemente Museum. I didn’t even know the museum existed until that day in April.

I had to ring the front door buzzer to be let in. The décor of the engine house I walked into really surprised me. The entire bottom floor, where the trucks used to be parked, was filled with Roberto Clemente memorabilia. Walls were covered with jerseys, baseballs, bats, photos, paintings, letters, autographs – an entire life displayed across the walls. There was even an exact replica of the old Forbes Field scoreboard, along with an actual home plate used during one of the Pirates’ World Series victories. I spent several minutes gawking at the display. The inner Pirates fan stirred within me, reminded of the days when our hometown team was one of the most respected and feared teams in all of baseball. Those days have been non-existent in my lifetime though. Just the night before, the team had set the all-time record for the worst single loss in baseball history against the Brewers. “20-0!”was the humiliating headline across town that morning.

Soon, it was time to get down to business. Our photographer, Duane, was upstairs in the studio loft finishing up his session with Kristin Graziano, another RMU student being featured in the Change A Life campaign. Kristin also went through the nursing program, and I’d had the chance to talk with her several times during my schooling. Her commercial was to be shot in Washington D.C. where her experience at a homeless shelter had made a profound impact on her and others. Doug and Larkin came down from the loft to finalize my wardrobe.

“Are these the outfits you brought with you?” Doug asked me, pointing toward the suitcase I wheeled behind me.

“Yup,” I said, “I brought every possible thing I might wear while in Nicaragua.” Larkin and Doug had instructed me to bring along scrubs, nursing tshirts, and any other clothing I would wear on a normal day in the barrio. After discussing the options for several minutes, they settled on my full set of navy blue clinical scrubs, oddly enough the only apparel I would not normally wear. It’s simply too hot for scrubs in the barrio. But since they are instantly related to nursing, they chose to stick with the scrubs, along with my stethoscope. I was sent to change, then into a back room where the makeup artist Catherine touched up my facial blemishes. Duane would be shooting close-ups of my head with a 24-megapixel camera, so the fewer pores that popped up, the better.

After a quick introduction to Duane, we got started with the shoot. I was placed in front of the hallmark symbol of the campaign, the big red square, and adjusted into a dozen different poses. Duane kept me on my toes. He shot me standing and sitting, smiling and not smiling, with arms crossed and arms relaxed. Meanwhile, Larkin and Doug stood with Duane’s assistant, Rob, and stared at the images that popped up immediately on the two widescreen computer monitors several feet away from me.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, don’t smile with your teeth,” Larkin suggested.

“Yeah, maybe not so much of a smirk,” Doug added. “Just a slight smile.” I quickly became self conscious about my smiling abilities. Is this how my own photography clients feel? I thought to myself. Every couple flashes, Catherine stepped in to make minute adjustments to my scrubs and dab my nose. I felt very strange. I supposed that this was, if nothing else, wonderful confirmation that nursing was a better fit for me than modeling. Half an hour passed before Duane wheeled his stool over to the art guys.

“Think we have enough to work with, fellas?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” Larkin nodded. “We have plenty.” I walked over to join the group by the computers. Rob dragged the mouse over the image of my face and magnified it so that my nose filled the whole screen.

“That’s disgusting!” I shouted, horrified. The guys thought it was hilarious.

“That’s what we’ll use for all the brochures, just your nose,” Larkin joked.

“Very funny, Larkin. So who all will be going on the big trip in July, if it happens?” I said, expecting Larkin and perhaps Doug to be the only ones. Duane heard my question.

“Oh, we’re all going,” he replied.

“No kidding? Wow, we get photographers too? And how much of this stuff are you’re going to bring?”

“Oh, it’s all going. We have to do this same exact shoot with David down there. You two are the stars of this thing. You think this kid David will be easy to work with?”he asked. I laughed at the thought of David being in a situation like this.

“Oh, he will be beyond excited, trust me.”

Leaving the studio that day, though, I remained very skeptical that the whole crazy idea would ever get that far.

“Ahhh, Lee! Buenos dias! You’re late!” Donna Auraruth says, wagging her finger at me scoldingly. The assistant dean of UPOLI’s nursing school gives me a hug and then steps back. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago!”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry. We tried, but you know how it is.” She laughs. Everyone knows how plans often work out in Nicaragua. Forty-five minutes late translates to ten minutes early. It takes some adjusting, but after a while, you get used to being perpetually behind schedule. We’ve just arrived at RMU’s sister university, UPOLI, where we will be spending most of our Tuesday here for the photography and interview shoot with David. Dr. Ross has already explained our whole project to the faculty, and they’ve graciously offered our crew their primary nursing classroom for the day to set up a makeshift studio. Duane and Rob are on duty this morning for their part of the task. Jeff and the film guys will arrive after lunch to conduct the interview with David.

Our first job, once all the gear has been carried in, is to clear the classroom of its desks so that Duane and Rob can reconstruct the red scrim, along with their lighting equipment. David walks into the room to find the guys hard at work setting up equipment.

“What do you think, pal?” I ask. “All of this just to take your picture! Wild, huh?”

“Wow!” he says, wide-eyed. “My goodness! How do you say it? Holy mackerel?” I laugh.

“Yeah, you said it all right. Holy mackerel!”

Don Pedro needs to take David to the market with Larkin and Doug to buy a shirt for the shoot. At his house earlier, David showed the team what he owned, and they decided he needed something with more contrast against the red background. An hour later, David and his new friends have return from the market with a gray polo shirt. Duane is ready to start his work and calls him over to the scrim. “All right, David, front and center, buddy!”

After meeting him for the first time yesterday, the crew is already immensely pleased to be working with David. Using the same disarmingly innocent charm that has won over the hearts of dozens of RMU nursing students, he has already gone to work proving to the film crew that he is the perfect kid to be receiving this kind of notoriety. The crew has remained adamant the whole trip about treating me like some sort of celebrity, and the only thing more exciting than that is watching them treat David like one, too.

Duane asks David to go get his trumpet. He carefully removes the instrument from its case and walks to the spot where Duane points. Surprisingly, David soon shows us how remarkably comfortable he is with being photographed. Ray and Doc watch from the corner of the room, and they can’t help but smile.

“Look at that smile,” Ray says, shaking his head. “So genuine. This kid’s a natural!”

Thinking back on my portrait session with Duane in Pittsburgh, I remember one of his strongest qualities was his ability to make his subjects feel relaxed while he worked. Here at UPOLI, he stays just as jovial, joking with David as he clicks away, encouraging him to goof off. He even picks up on David’s liking for English catch phrases. Soon, their new countdown to the shutter becomes “1….2….3….holy mackerel!”

“Holy mackerel!” David laughs, showing off his wide, contagious grin as Duane’s flash pops. The rest of the stills shoot goes off without a hitch. Around noon, the door to the classroom opens and the film guys begin lugging in cases of video equipment. I notice out of the corner of my eye that Ray has pulled David off to the side to prep him for the interview he plans to conduct this afternoon. David is nodding his head slowly with that puzzled expression that tells me he doesn’t fully understand the conversation. I wait for Ray to finish, then walk over to take a seat in the desk next to David. The poor guy has gone from having the time of his life to being scared to death.

“What’s up, David. How ya feeling?”

“Ah, my friend, I am nervous!”he says, shaking his head.

“You don’t have to be nervous. Ray just wants to have a conversation with you,” I tell him. “There aren’t any wrong answers to these questions. You can say whatever you want!” He still appears unconvinced.

“Yes, but my English, when I have become nervous, I cannot speak my English as well.”

“David, your English is way better than it was a year ago. It’s great.”

“He wants me to talk about how I feel, about my….how do you say….my emotions? He wants me to talk about my emotions.”

“Oh, that just means he wants you to tell us what it felt like when we gave you the trumpet.”

“Yes, but I don’t know how. I’ve never tried to talk about my emotions.” I’m beginning to feel really sorry for the poor kid, and guilty for putting him in this situation. Having his photo taken comes naturally, but sitting through an Oprah-style interview will be way outside his comfort zone.

It’s time for lunch. We pile into the van and make a quick trip to the local Pollo Estrella restaurant. When David and I arrive back at the university, we find that our classroom has transformed once again, this time into a television studio. Jeff and his team have constructed a film set right in the middle of the room, complete with backdrop, dropcloths, lighting stands, sound booms, monitors, and cameras. David’s eyes grow huge again. I was not expecting this either. This time it’s my turn to use David’s phrase. Holy mackerel. Dr. Ross has been watching Adam wrap the lights in tinted cellophane to change the hue that will appear on camera. He looks over at me, also clearly amazed.

“This is just crazy,” he says. “I’m so out of my element here. I’m used to living in the field of nursing. I know nothing about this stuff. I have no idea how these guys do all of this!”

Ray comes over to collect David, leading him to a chair placed in the center of the fort-like interview set. He kneels down next to the teenager and goes through the plan with him yet again. Meanwhile, Anita is busy making final preparations. “Okay, I need everyone out!”she shouts. “Everyone who doesn’t have something to do, please clear the room!” Larkin and Dough grab wireless headsets and step outside to listen. Dr. Ross and I are pulled behind the scrim with instructions to be quiet while tape is rolling. Anita sees me taking photos of the final prep. “No photos once we start rolling, okay, Lee?” My wide-eyed friend looks up at me with an overwhelmed expression, and I take his picture one last time, then turn my camera off. Adam sets up a monitor for us to watch during the interview. On the small screen, I can see Dino taping a microphone to David’s chest.

“He looks scared to death, Doc,” I whisper. Oddly enough, at that moment, David looks over at me and tries to offer me some reassurance.

“My friend, do not be nervous!” he says bravely. “There is nothing to worry about!” He’s simply repeating the encouragement that we’ve been giving him, and that makes me laugh.

“Okay, we’re set to go,” Jeff tells Anita.

“All right, quiet on the set!” The humming AC units have been turned off to achieve the best possible audio feed. Dino waits for UPOLI students walking outside to move past the door, then gives Jeff the thumbs up. The red light goes on. Jeff nods to Ray. Ray turns to David.

“What is that, David? In your hands – tell me what that is.” David grins broadly.

“It’s my trumpet!” he says.

“Tell me about it. How did you lose your first trumpet? And how did you get another one?” David seems to take a deep breath, and then begins a rambling, sincere explanation.

“Well, my friend Lee, he knew that my trumpet had been taken from me, and I was despaired about it, but Lee, who is my American friend, in the United States, he got me this trumpet and when he gave it to me, I could not even believe my eyes. My eyes…yes, I even cried from my eyes! And this feeling of surprise went deep into my soul and I could not believe it!” Dr. Ross and I start to chuckle. This crew wanted to capture the essence of David, and this is it: bubby, energetic, and tremendously entertaining.

The kid wasn’t kidding about nerves hijacking his English. He struggles to find words at various point, but bravely, he stays determined and fields Ray’s questions as best as his English allows. After he’s finished, Edgar asks him to respond to a few more questions in Spanish. These he answers much more fluently, and Dr. Ross nods to me as he listens. “These responses sound much more natural,” he whispers. Jeff then asks me to take Ray’s seat by the camera and pitch him a few more. David’s relaxed by now, and switches back to English. He talks vibrantly about all the girls who have become his friends since meeting him at the clinic, and how special it was for him to have our team surprise him with the trumpet back in November.

I am still in disbelief watching this scene unfold. The image quality on the monitor is so remarkable, David truly does look like a Nicaraguan celebrity being interviewed in a studio. After half an hour of taping, Jeff looks up from the camera. “Okay, that’s it! Great job David.” The kid heaves a huge sigh of relief and reaches for his cup of water.

“You did it, man!” I tell him. “See? I knew it wouldn’t be hard for you!”

“Yes, but I was nervous,” he laughs. “Holy mackerel!”

What a trooper this young man has turned out to be. Sitting in front of a camera, no matter what kind, can be a frightening experience for anyone, let alone being asked to answer questions from people you have just met in a language you have not yet mastered. But David made it look easy. I know he never expected to be living this crazy moment. I never expected anything like this, either. We’re both a bit scared of the whole thing. We’re both very excited, too. Being treated like TV stars is a thrill for both of us. And the strangest part? We haven’t even shot the actual commercial yet.

Holy mackerel indeed.

Los Dos Davids — Miracles Happen

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Katherine Heigl is shooting a movie in Pittsburgh. That’s the topic of conversation at breakfast this Monday morning (July 12), our first full day in Managua. I find it very interesting to simply sit and listen, especially since it’s not very often that I’m sitting at a table sharing gallo pinto with a bunch of folks from the film industry. The crowd has already thoroughly dissected Pixar’s greatest moments, and I haven’t opened my mouth since receiving several stunned glances when I mentioned that no, I had not yet seen Up. Instead, I’m now trying to muscle down a few more bites of breakfast, in hopes that Dr. Ross will not give me the usual grief for not eating enough for the day. No matter more how hard I try, I can’t eat rice before 8 AM. It just isn’t natural.

A few minutes later, Anita brings us around to review our goals for this week. We have five days to shoot enough footage to produce a 60-second TV commercial. It sounds pretty simple. Well, on paper, it does. But in reality, I am becoming aware that there are ten thousand things that need to take place first before shooting even begins. So today, we are going “location shopping” in the barrio, the results of which will set the tone for the week. Our TV spot centers on a giant square of red fabric serving as a backdrop. This giant square is referred to amongst the crew as a scrim. I am to be shot on camera, telling the story about David and his trumpet in front of the red scrim. The viewer, when the commercial reaches its final cut, will be watching the commercial and seeing my face. Then, as the camera zooms out slowly, the camera will reveal that I have been standing in the middle of the barrio the entire time, with David standing right next to me. The goal is to create a concept captivating enough to really interest the viewer in David’s story. Today, we are setting out to find the spot in the barrio that will look best for the shot that the our art staff calls “the reveal.” If we find the perfect spot to set up the camera, then all will be well with Jeff the director and his worker bees. If not, then we have all flown two thousand miles for nothing. So in a nutshell, there is a whole lot riding on this first day.

As we all climb into the van outside the hotel, I am delighted to see that UPOLI has assigned my good friend Don Pedro to be our driver for the week. “I wanna dance with Don Pedro!” I belt out as I walk through the front gate with my gear for the day. He bursts out laughing. Back in November, this poor man was tortured by our nursing team with that doctored version of Whitney Houston’s classic hit for nearly the entire trip. He has not changed one bit since I left, and I am glad to find the Winnie the Pooh figurine still glued to his dashboard. With Don Pedro manning the wheel for the week, I’m already feeling good about our chances for success.

I sit down next to the man who has promised to bring out my inner Tom Hanks. “Jeff, Mr. Director sir, how ya feeling?” I ask. Jeff smiles from underneath his ball cap.

“I’m ready to get this show on the road,” he says. “You ready?”

“I guess I have to be! So explain the mechanics of this to me, Jeff. What exactly are you looking for with the reveal shot?” Jeff nods. He’s the type that enjoys explaining things.

“Well, basically, we’re going to be looking for an expanse,” he replies. “We need an open area that will give the viewer a sense of space. We need to have something to reveal, so it has to be more than just an alleyway. It has to be something that opens up.” In my mind’s eye, I’m trying to think of a spot in the barrio that would fit this description. I understand Jeff to a point, but I sure am glad that I’m not the one responsible for pulling this all together. It’s good to just be the actor.

The first daylight ride through Managua always holds lots of surprises for its first-time visitors. Whenever we land in the capital at night, the streets are quiet and sights are hard to see on the way to the hotel. But once the sun comes up the next morning, there are many things to take in from the window. I am surprised to notice that, for the first time in this country, I am not the guy taking all the photographs. Nearly every crew member has his camera glued to the glass, shooting every other second, trying to frame up as much of this first commute as possible. The intersections are the best sources for stoplight entertainment. There are clowns on crutches and beggars in wheelchairs and shirtless performers juggling flaming batons through the air, each of them very adept at the art of massaging cordobas from of the hands of wide-eyed foreigners. When the light goes green, the pandemonium of the urban traffic begins all over again. Drivers dodge the gaping potholes, sometimes also having to swerve from the dogs that dart out from underneath horse-drawn carts along the curb. One of our photography guys, Rob Larson, sums it up the best from his spot in the back row. “This is like one really messed up roller coaster!”

Before long, we make a turn off one of the paved avenues. “Okay, we are coming into the barrio now!” Dr. Ross calls back from the front of the van. Dino leans over to me, looking somewhat confused.

“Wait, where we’ve been driving wasn’t the barrio? I thought all of that was the barrio.”

“Oh no, that’s the nicer part of town. We haven’t come into the barrio yet.” The conversation in the van dies down as we drive into the neighborhood where the UPOLI clinic stands. I know the film crew has been prepared to see this, but there aren’t really words that jump to mind when you find yourself entering the thick of it in person. Poverty tends to bewilder us as Americans, and when it presents itself abruptly, particularly in this environment, it takes time to adjust one’s focus on reality. I am suddenly aware of how we will appear to the barrio as well. For most of them, this will be their first time seeing a film crew.

David, my good friend and commercial co-star, has been prepped for our arrival, thanks to Dr. Ross. On the last trip down, two weeks prior, he was able to get a hold of David and explain to him what we were hoping to do. I had predicted that David would be ecstatic about such a unique opportunity, and true to form, he made himself at our disposal right away. He currently works at night at a call center for one of the nation’s largest cellular providers, Claro. Since we were going to need him for several full days during this week, Dr. Ross contacted David’s supervisor and asked for permission to miss work. The boss agreed, as long as David could provide a letter from Dr. Ross, explaining why we needed him. As we pull up to the gate at the clinic, David is inside waiting. The crew begins to pile out, and I grab my bag to jump out, too. Kyle stops me.

“Lee, hold on just a second. We need you to stay in the van for a moment while the crew sets up. We probably want to capture this moment of you two seeing each other.” I look back at her.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry. Just bear with us for a few minutes.” Outside, David has already started meeting the crew. There are big smiles, handshakes, high-fives. I want to be out there, too. I watch the kid for a few moments, wondering how long it will take for him to notice that I’m not there. As the guys are talking to him, he starts looking around. The camera crew is trying to pull everything out in time. They aren’t going to make it. David spots me in the window. Not knowing of Kyle’s hopes to get our reunion on tape, he strides open to the van and throws open the door.

“Hello, my friend!” he shouts. “You have come back!” I look back and Kyle and shrug, laughing. The boy can’t be stopped. I jump down to give him a hug. The photography guys are all set up, and I can hear their shutters clicking away. That’s all right. I would want to capture this moment, too.

“You have brought new friends!” David says, looking around at all the guys and their gear.

“Yes! And they all came to make you a big star. You ready to be a star?” David looks at me, always suspicious that I am joking.

“Sure? They are going to make me a star? You joke.”

“It’s no joke, man.” Duane says. “We’re here to see you!”

“Wow,” David says. “I can hardly believe it!”

“Oh, believe me,” I say. “Neither can !”

“Lee, can I get you to step inside the clinic for one sec?” Dino asks. “I need to get you wired up for sound.” A minute later, I find out what exactly being “wired up” entails. Dino pulls out an elastic belt about ten inches wide and stretches it around my midsection. A transmitter is attached to the back of the belt, and then a wire is wrapped around front, ending with a matchstick-sized microphone. This microphone, taped directly to my skin, will be able to pick up my voice and send it to Dino’s headset and the camera. So anything that I say, Dino hears. It takes a few minutes before he finishes taping the equipment to my chest. “Are you a heavy sweater?” he asks. I start to laugh.

“Oh you’re going not going to like me for very long, Dino. My sweat glands pump out gallons a day down here.” Dino looks concerned.

“Seriously? Cause these mics aren’t waterproof.”

“You’re saying I could electrocute myself with my own sweat?” He chuckles.

“Not likely. Well, let’s hope not, anyway.” Behind me, I hear Jeff and Adam unpacking the video equipment. Adam asks Jeff about his opinion of the camera.

“Best 68,000 dollars I ever spent,” he responds. The magnitude of this production is starting to sink in. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. No pressure, Lee.

“Okay, is everyone ready to start walking?” Anita calls out to all of us. She’s the one whose job it is to keep the whole show running on schedule. Though today is not technically a shooting day, we are going to be rolling tape anyway for content that will be used for the B roll. The approach is to act as normally as we would on any day, making rounds through the streets with David acting as translator. Needless to say, the arrival of an American film crew has already caused quite a stir in the neighborhood. We are not very far from the clinic before clusters of children begin to appear in doorways, unknowingly creating prime photo ops for Duane and Rob’s lenses.

I’ve made sure that each of the crew’s pockets is well stocked with Smarties and Dum Dums for the kids. Candy makes fast friends in the barrio. The boldest kids run out first, some recognizing me from previous trips and wrapping their arms around my waist. There are shy faces too, tucked behind light poles and iron gates, too frightened to venture out to the strangers. I begin to hear children whispering names of my Robert Morris teammates. Donde esta Kelley? Donde esta Katrina and Ashley and Lindsey? I hate telling them that they are not with me on this trip, but I relay to them through David that the girls all miss them very much. One of the team’s favorites, Mercedes, asks if she can give letters to me for her RMU student nurses. I promise her I will, then I run to catch up with the crew heading in the general direction of Eddie’s house.

One year ago, nearly to the day, Eddie was the subject of my first story on the barrio, “The Plight of the Managuan.” That day in July, he had been raced to the clinic by his wife and very pregnant daughter. He was suffering from an aggressive case of penile cancer. Though the cancerous lesion had been removed in surgery, the infection that followed was advancing quickly. Three times Eddie had been taken to the hospital in Managua, and three times doctors had sent him home, telling him to buy a casket. There was nothing else they could do. Dr. Ross was also at a loss for what to do with Eddie that day. We ended up sending him away in a cab to the hospital to get antibiotics in hopes of fighting off a superinfection. Before we left that week, a group of us went to visit him at his home. We found him lying in the hammock in the front yard while a UPOLI nursing student hung his IV antibiotics from the barbed wire that stretched across the yard. With nothing left for us to do, we stood around Eddie, held hands, and prayed. Eddie was the calmest of anyone. For several minutes, he cried out in Spanish to God. Our translators whispered to us, in tears, that he was asking God’s blessing upon us, the people who had done what they could to help him. Eddie was at the doorstep of death, and at peace with it. However, God must have had another plan since today we are on our way to visit the man.

Eddie is standing at his door as we walk down the muddy road. “Hermano!” Dr. Ross call out, waving. Eddie grins and raises his hands in greeting. Though my eyes tell me it is him standing there, my mind struggles to process the moment. Eddie is not only still alive, but he’s out of bed and looking as healthy as any other man on the street. His shirt his off, revealing the faded scars from his surgeries. It’s such an incredible transformation, I’m almost afraid to touch him.

“Mi hermanos!” he cries out as he embraces both of us, oddly oblivious to the sound boom that Dino has conspicuously lowered over our conversation. Jeff presses the camera in close, and his grip guy, Adam, stands close behind. Our translator, Marsela, is there to provide help as we ask him how he is doing. “I feel wonderful,” he says. “All the glory to God. He healed me!” Eddie pulls the waistband of his shorts down far enough to show us where the lesion had been. His wife holds out a photograph of him at the height of the cancer for comparison. The area has healed beautifully. Somehow, Eddie goes on to tell us, a doctor in Spain heard about his case and volunteered to help him. He tells us how he was ready to die, but God had heard his family’s prayers. He wraps his arms around us and draws us close, “These two are brothers,” Marsala relays to the crew. Eddie’s daughter stands behind him, holding the baby boy who has arrived safely since July. It’s an amazing moment.

We say goodbye to Eddie for now and keep moving down the lane. A few young boys are kicking around a deflated soccer ball in the street, so David and I join them for a few moments. It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be wearing this giant rubber band underneath my scrubs. “Dino, do you read me?” I mutter under my breath. I can see him nodding farther down the road with Dr. Ross. “Dino, I’m beginning to resent you.” A moment later, Jeff waves me over. “Lee, we need you over here for a second, please.” My soccer break is over. Dr. Ross has been approached by a teenage mother carrying her newborn. Jeff points me in front of the camera and nods when I am close enough.

It doesn’t take a lot of experience to see that the baby we are assessing is terribly ill. Not more than three months old, her legs are just twigs, covered in a speckled rash. When I step next to him, Dr. Ross leans over. “The mother is HIV positive, and her baby has full-blown AIDS.” The infant hangs limply across the mother’s arms, her eyes are bulging from her head, lice crawling all over her scalp. Our translator Edgar is visibly shaken up, as is Dr. Ross. He tells the mother what he can, simple education about treating the lice and caring for the rash. But it’s obvious that there is little that can be done. The baby has weeks to live, at the most. It’s Eddie all over again.

Fifteen minutes later, Kyle tugs at my elbow, pulling me away from the crowd. “We want you to cool off in the van for a few minutes.” I try to assure her that I’m fine, but to no avail. “Lee, we really need you to stay fresh for filming this week. All of us crew can be whipped tomorrow, but you have to be dynamite.” Kyle is my boss on this trip, so I am obliged to follow orders. I climb inside. From the quiet of the van, I take a moment to digest what has already transpired during our first hour of “location shopping.” Though my heart is breaking for the baby and its helpless mother, I have to tell myself not to give up hope. We are not able to do anything for the baby, but then again, we were not able to do anything for Eddie either. Yes, I’m witnessing a tragedy. But in a barrio like this, in a place where human efforts often fall so far short, there exists a preserving hope in the knowledge that miracles can happen. And do happen.

Just ask Eddie.

Los Dos Davids — Among Storytellers

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

The first person who came to mind when I met Ray Werner was Gordon the Fisherman. In setting up our first meeting, he had told me to look for “the old guy with the white beard.” Sure enough, on a brisk October morning last year, I walked into the Nicholsen Center at RMU and found him standing at the café – trimmed white beard, a wide smile, and very happy eyes. With the weather-worn face of an old sea captain, he appeared to be the street clothes version of Gordon the Fisherman, for sure. His vice grip handshake didn’t let go until he had thoroughly studied my face. I could tell he was an old-fashioned type, a man who cherishes opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Mr. Werner had wanted to meet me for coffee for several weeks. Though I had heard his name tossed around before by Dr. Ross, I had never seen him until we met that morning, I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted from me, other than an interview about my RMU experience. I was curious to find out more as we sat down on the patio outside with our coffee.

“So what do you think of Robert Morris so far?” Ray began, settling back into his chair. He pulled out a pad of paper as I pondered his question.

“Well, I really enjoy going to school here,” I answered. “I’ve had a wonderful experience so far with the nursing program, and certainly with my trip this past summer to Nicaragua.” This was my standard response to a very common question. Most people just wanted to know that I was still enrolled and still studying, not much else. I drifted off as I noticed Ray setting a voice recorder on the patio table. “Wait, we’re recording this?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t mind the recorder. It’s just for my own notes.” Ray redirected the conversation. “Tell me more about Nicaragua. Tell me about this friend of yours, David. He sounds like a pretty remarkable young man.” I nodded. Indeed, David was remarkable. Since I had returned home in July, my short stories from Managua about David and other friends in the barrio had slowly moved their way up the ladder at RMU, finally ending up on the desk of Ray Werner, a man who had remained faceless t before now. I was beginning to wonder what exactly Mr. Werner did for the university. I finished up my comments on David and waited for Ray to speak. He nodded, tapped his pen a few times on his pad, measuring his reaction, stalling as if about to reveal a really great hand of poker.

“Well, I have a really special job here, Lee,” he said after a long moment. “In addition to teaching here, I’ve had the privilege of working with some really great people, including President Dell’Omo and his staff, to develop a new advertising campaign for Robert Morris.” Ray sipped his coffee and looked around. He lowered his voice a bit. “A new way for the university to present itself to the region and the world.” I nodded, but I wasn’t quite following him. “We think you have a remarkable story in the making here, Lee, and we want to follow it closely, particularly with you and David.”

“I don’t really know what you mean,” I replied.

“Well, I’m not able to tell you everything now because it is still very much in the developmental stages. But what you need to know right now is that we are very interested in capturing the moment when you give David his trumpet next month. Do you think you can make sure that happens?”

“I will do my best, sure.” We began to talk more about the details of my upcoming trip in November. I was not sure at all what Ray Warner had in mind, but it was clear he wasn’t planning on tipping his hand just yet.

~

“Take a look at this, Lee, and tell us what you think.”

It was now January, and I was sitting in the Pittsburgh office of Wall-To-Wall Studios on the North Side. Riding the elevator to the fourth story loft space of the advertising firm, one could enjoy an impressive panorama of the city, frozen in its midwinter pose. I had been summoned once again to a meeting with Ray Werner, this time joined by his oldest son and Wall-to-Wall executive, Larkin, and one of his employees, Doug.

After the introductions had been made, Ray brought us around to the purpose of our gathering. He began by sliding a piece of paper across the boardroom table in my direction. There were several blocks of text on the page, and as I began to read them to myself, I became acutely aware of the stares of the other three men in the room. I was already aware that big changes were ahead for the public image of Robert Morris University, and I had suspicions that my stories from Nicaragua would somehow be playing a role. The rest was a mystery, though. Now, after several months of waiting, here was the pitch. And it felt like there was intense expectation for my reaction.

“Well,” I said, after a moment of reading over the paper. “This looks like a script of some kind.”

“It is indeed a script,” Mr. Werner responded, nodding eagerly. “It’s your script.”

“My script for what, exactly?” I said, looking up.

“Well, that script is a script for a commercial we want to produce about your story.”

“My story?”

“The story of you and David and the trumpet.” Mr. Werner was visibly excited, wringing his hands as he talked. “It’s a wonderful story.”

“You must be joking,” I responded, chuckling now. “You’re serious? A television commercial?”

“Yes! We want to produce it with you this summer! How does your schedule look for July?” I was more than a bit shocked.

“Well, I uh, um….I haven’t given much thought to the summer yet.” Mr. Werner’s son, Larkin, leaned over the conference table to join in the conversation.

“We want to make your story with David as true to life as we can, Lee,” he said. “Do you think David is the type of person who would be interested in making this commercial happen?”

“Well, what do you mean exactly?” I asked. “I mean, the way this script reads, it seems like David is actually in the commercial with me.” My next question seemed so ludicrous to even ask. “Does that mean we’d be flying him here to Pittsburgh?” Larkin looked over to his dad before responding.

“Well, actually, it would mean we all would be flying down there.” The comment struck me completely caught off guard.

“To Nicaragua? You want to shoot the commercial in Nicaragua?” I asked.

“Hopefully,” replied Larkin. “That’s the plan. We still need final approval on everything. But this is a colossal project we are undertaking, and it’s going to be a giant investment by RMU.” That was no understatement. Mobilizing a film crew to set up and film a TV spot in the barrio of a third world country seemed like an incredibly ridiculous proposition to even suggest. But Ray and Larkin and Doug had obviously given this a lot of thought, and they didn’t seem to think so.

“So what do you think?” Ray asked eagerly, obviously caught up in the inspiration of a big idea. It took a moment for me to respond.

“Honestly,” I responded finally, “If think you’re all a bit nuts.”

~

It’s raining in Belize tonight.

I know this because of the text message that lit up half a dozen cell phones just minutes ago on Continental Flight 1774. The majority of our film crew operates constantly on the iPhone, and after the pilot had given passengers the okay, most of them had been turned on for the sake of playing music. A random text message arrived in the plane, welcoming us all to Belize airspace and informing us of the roaming charges that would apply if we decided to use our phones. Glancing out the window, I can see thunderstorms from the plane, lit from up from within by lightning every few seconds. It’s an incredible sight as we continue to fly through the twilight of a tropical sunset. The sky above us is slowly morphing from orange to pink as the sun sinks lower. Meanwhile, a canopy of flickering storms dots the landscape between us and the ground.

From my seat by the window, I can see the other members of the team spread throughout the cabin. Some are reading. Some are sleeping. A few are just enjoying the sunset. I’m on the plane to Managua with the eleven people it will require to pull off a project of this scope. Throughout our travelling today, I’ve been able to piece together the names and faces of the film crew. Along with the RMU representation of Kyle Fisher and Dr. Ross , there are three art producers, two still photographers, a sound technician, camera technician, director, and producer. I do not have all of their names straightened out yet, but I am almost there. Seated behind me is Anita, our producer. She has been all over the world working for Longfellow Productions. Beside her is Adam, our camera grip. He will be the guy following the director around with spare batteries and lenses.

Our two photographers are sitting behind me as well. Duane Reider is the premier portrait photographer in Pittsburgh. He has worked numerous times with the popular personalities of Mario Lemeiux, Hines Ward, Sydney Crosby, and Troy Polamalu. He also happens to be the owner of the world’s largest collection of Roberto Clemente memorabilia. Clemente never made it to Nicaragua, dying in a tragic plane crash to the country in 1972. Flying to the country that Clemente cared so much about is an important moment for Duane, one of the legend’s biggest fans. His assistant Rob will be working the still shots with him, as well.

Jeff Garton, the director, is sitting by the window on the wing. I haven’t talked too much with him yet, but he seems to be a very interesting character. When he has his ball cap on, he resembles a gaunt Steven Speilberg. Through our group email thread, I know he just finished filming a movie called The Riddle in Pittsburgh with Val Kilmer. On the tram in Houston, I overheard a conversation between him and Dino, our sound guy. Jeff was describing the challenges of filming Shaquille O’Neal, who he recently produced a music video with. I turned around on the tram so he wouldn’t see my jaw drop. Fantastic, I thought to myself. This guy has directed Shaq. No pressure. Dino is a man of vast experience as well, having traveled with National Geographic production crews all over the world. Most of these guys are pretty much freelancers, from what I’ve gathered. They wait for a phone call from their production house, they gather their gear, and they go wherever the script sends them. And tonight, they are all on assignment to Nicaragua to film some college kid from RMU.

Across the aisle from me are the three art gurus who first pitched the idea to me. Ray is reading intently. Larkin is lost in a magazine as well. Doug, on the other hand, seems to just be passing the flight on his iPod. Since meeting him at Wall-to-Wall, I’ve learned that Doug is the freshest talent out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where he graduated at the very top of his class. This is his first long trip away from his new wife, Sarah. A couple months ago, Larkin and Doug were able to give me a preview of the campaign that they’ve spent months working on for Robert Morris. Under the supervision of Ray, these two creative minds have created something really eye-catching. The whole rebranding of the university will be based on the following slogan, Change Someone’s Life and It Changes Yours Forever. It’s not only a compelling idea, but also a massive undertaking.

When we all made it safely through security at Pittsburgh International, Ray had gathered the group to share a few words about the meaning of the campaign. “All of us here are storytellers,” he told the group. “We’re all here because of a story that is worth capturing and worth sharing. The mission here is to be the best storytellers we can be. Let’s go do our best work.” Not wanting to forget what he said, I pull down my tray table and start to jot down some notes on the day’s events. Dr. Ross, seated next to me, takes notice and pulls out his ear buds.

“Are you really writing already? We just left a couple hours ago. Can’t you wait?” he teases.

“Kyle told me she wanted me to be the official blogger of the trip. At least I’m doing my job and not sleeping away all of my time.” Doc chuckles. The friendly abuse is now tradition between us. He leans back over.

“So have you thought about what you’re going to name the stories this time?”

“I have actually, a little bit,” I reply. “What do you think about this – Two Kids Named David. Yes? No?” Dr. Ross nods.

“Or how about in Spanish?” he says. “You could call it Los Dos Davids. The Two Davids.” The title strikes an even better tone.

“That’s great! We’ll go with that!” I jot down Los Dos Davids at the top of the notebook page, then glance out the window. The plane is descending through the flickering canopy now, causing the wing to visibly shake in the turbulence. Managua’s runway is short and bumpy, which makes for an armrest gripping experience. It’s time to pray for a safe landing.

We land in the midst of a torrential downpour. However, as it so often does, the precipitation has tapered off by the time we roll up to the gate. Steam is rising from the wings of the aircraft when the cabin lights come on. Within a few minutes, we are all standing in line at customs. Watching the Nicaraguans on the tarmac carting baggage away from the plane, that peculiar feeling of being a little fish in a big pond begins to sink in once more. Spanish is the new sound, sweating the new norm.

We are very fortunate to have all our equipment cases make it through to the other side of customs. Medical supplies never cause an issue here. However, upon seeing thousands of dollars of camera equipment pass under the eyes of luggage X-ray, security personnel stops the belt and demands an official explanation. It takes some artful negotiating from Dr. Ross and Anita, but eventually the guards are satisfied and we are permitted to leave. Outside the doors of the Sandino International, the chaos of airport traffic greets us along with the wall of humidity. A truck has been sent from UPOLI to pick us up, but we still have to figure out which of the many parked-in vehicles is chartered for us.

This situation at the airport can get crazy very quickly, so I position myself on the curb with my duffel bag clutched to my chest and keep my eyes on Dr. Ross. A moment later, I feel something tugging at my shirt. I look down beside me to see a girl, six or seven years old, pulling at my clothes and asking for change. I smile at her. Inwardly, my heart melts for this place all over again. This is how this whole crazy ride began, I think to myself. A little girl tugging at my clothes, one just like her, rejected often, yet somehow relentless in her hope for a helping hand. In fact, it’s been a year to the day since I wrote that story about Ruthia and her grasshopper and sent it off to my mom back home. Now I’m standing here at the airport again, this time with a film crew. You never know what can happen in one year.

I pull out twenty cordobas leftover from my last trip and hand it to the girl. Her face lights up for a brief moment, and then she is gone, vanished into the maze of traffic. Ray was right. I am not among nursing students this time. I am among storytellers. And here in this city, in this largely forgotten corner of Latin America, there are plenty of stories that need to be told.

Two hours later, I am sitting out on the patio at Hippos, the traditional hangout spot for the Robert Morris groups that Dr. Ross brings with him twice a year. The sports grille is just a short walk from our bed-and-breakfast hotel, Sol y Luna, and the atmosphere provided here by the hospitable wait staff makes it a very memorable place for many nursing students. The crew has all crowded around several tables. We seem to be the only customers in the place this late on a Sunday night. The rain has blown away, carried off by a steady breeze that brings with it the soundtrack of the Managuan night. Honking taxis and rasping insects and the passing crackle of a peddler’s loudspeaker: all of it blending into the crazy rhythm of Latin ambiance. A conversation I had with my friend George comes to mind as I watch the activity in the street. I remember talking with him one night about the feeling of being an American in a foreign land. George has been to France more times than he can remember, and he describes the experience well. “I’ve been going over to France for decades,” he said, “But still, every time we land in Paris, I walk down to the local café and sit out on the avenue with a drink and I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m really not dreaming.” That’s exactly the feeling I have right now.

Having passed my NCLEX exam just 48 hours ago, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Glasses are raised in celebration of my new R.N. status. After four years of hard work, my classmates and I are finally achieving our goal of becoming nurses. Ray Werner leans over to me, thrusting out his hand for his tenth handshake of the day. I’ve noticed that whenever Ray wants to say something to you, he almost always must be shaking your hand to do it. I take his hand and he squeezes, then speaks. “You know, Lee, I noticed something while sitting here.”

“Oh? What’s that, Ray?”

“You really look like you feel at home here,” he says. I have to laugh. At the end of this trip, I will have spent one month out of the past twelve in this country. It still feels worlds away from home, but I do admit to him, it sure feels good to be back. And just to make sure all of it is really happening again, I lay my wrist out on the table for a moment, and pinch.

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