Reporter's Notebook from Panama

Panama Sets Stage for ‘Aha!’ Moment on Public Health

The week of June 2nd, I had the pleasure of visiting Panama for the first time. I was there on assignment to write about the official opening of the USF Health International Foundation and to write about our student programs there in public health and nursing. I traveled on assignment numerous times during my years in tv news and didn’t really expect any surprises on this trip.

Was I wrong!

Many of you have probably heard the phrase ‘an AHA! moment’. Well, I had mine overlooking the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.

Standing on that observation deck, shoulder to shoulder with tourists from all over the world, I finally realized what this thing called public health is all about. Watching two huge cargo ships inch their way in & out of the water compartments, I understood how health conditions in one part of the world, can yield consequences for others, near and far. I understood how public health impacts my every day life, not just someone else’s.

On that observation deck, the sound of clicking cameras and ‘ooo-ing’ tourists was coupled by conversations – in many languages – marveling at ‘what cargo might be inside’ the containers floating by. Strangely, I didn’t care. Instead, I wondered about viruses or ‘super bugs’ that might be onboard the many ships that pass through. After all, the canal serves as a shortcut to ships from all over the globe. Any viruses or epidemics spread here, could have repercussions throughout Central America and then spread north and south, east and west. It’s something canal administrators take very seriously – special teams of canal employees board every vessel to check for ‘outbreaks’ or any dangerous health conditions before granting safe passage.

More than one-hundred years ago, U.S. General William Gorgas realized that in order to finish the canal he had to keep the workers alive! Their predecessors, the French, had lost some 20,000 men to malaria and yellow fever. Turning his sites from explosives and diggers carving out the canal, the general focused on living conditions – unlocking the mystery of what it was about that particular place that killed so many with disease. Understanding that, he took action – draining marshes, paving the roads, and ‘oiling’ the mosquitos to death in the fields. With no breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitos, his workers survived. The canal was finished. Public health was born.

Back home now, I see how folks in public health are at work changing the world every day – and for the better. It’s not just the stereotypical PH project building sewers overseas or the dispensing of vaccinations. From workplace safety and occupational health; to helping design communities with more areas for outdoor & physical activity; to their efforts with child restraint seats that keep my kids alive during car accidents – public health professionals are quietly at work…every day…making things happen. I see that now. Clearly.

Reporter’s Notebook by Lissette Campos, USF Health Communications