Suzy Feigofsky (left) laughs with a woman from a village on Batiki, an island of Fiji. The woman did not speak English but enjoyed teasing Feigofsky.
Suzy Feigofsky (left) laughs with a woman from a village on Batiki, an island of Fiji. The woman did not speak English but enjoyed teasing Feigofsky.

December 28, 2017

A Carroll cardiologist spent time this summer weaving palm leaves to build chicken tractors, making coconut milk and treating coral reef injuries.

Dr. Suzy Feigofsky, an electrophysiologist at Iowa Heart Center in Carroll, traveled to Fiji in August through the Sea Mercy organization with a group of volunteers who taught locals about gardening, composting and swimming — and treated their injuries and illnesses.

The team included about 30 volunteers, four of whom were physicians. They spent time on Batiki, an island of Fiji, located in the South Pacific northeast of New Zealand, learning about a different way of life and working with locals there not to completely change how they live but to work with what they have.

“What they do (through Sea Mercy) is amazing,” Feigofsky said. “It’s not just about going and helping but about teaching them to be sustainable.”

Volunteers worked to teach locals about composting with chicken manure and planting gardens in the rain forest. Using “chicken tractors” made from bamboo and wire, they worked with villagers to catch wild chickens, providing eggs for much-needed protein in their diets and manure for their gardens.

Feigofsky learned to weave palm leaves for the chicken tractors the volunteers helped build.

Some volunteers taught villagers how to swim. The island residents were fairly active, Feigofsky said — they played rugby and other sports.

Medical professionals on the trip ran into locals with high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems, but they learned that the older residents who had lived on the island for quite some time were healthier, while younger generations who left the island to work elsewhere had more problems with diabetes and hypertension.

The doctors traveling on the mission trip, in addition to treating locals, cared for the volunteers on the trip, some of whom ran into health problems while adjusting to the change in environment and pace. Some volunteers had foot injuries from coral reefs. In many cases, extremely specialized physicians found themselves most needed for simple first aid.

The physicians ran into challenges, learning that it’s almost taboo for the villagers to go to the doctor. Although they wanted medical care, they didn’t want any of their neighbors or friends to know they were visiting a physician.

So doctors regularly made house calls, dodging questions about where they were going.

But for those who did reach out to the doctors, there was a surprising lack of impatience. Feigofsky recalled once visiting a school to help treat 60 kids, and no one complained about having to wait.

The island where Feigofsky worked ran mainly on solar power, not electricity, and there were no outlets for volunteers to use. The doctors traveling with the group had only the supplies available at the small clinic in town.

“It’s challenging to just use your skills and not technology,” she said. “It was really neat — it helped me feel more like a doctor.”

The “it takes a village” mindset was very much in play, with kids wandering the village and being invited inside by others for lunch. The island culture was centered on utilizing the supplies and resources available there, Feigofsky said.

“The thing I noticed is how happy everyone is,” she said. “What I took away most — we have access to so much here. They don’t have running water, flush toilets or the best shelter, and they’re happy. It’s about community and people.

“There’s no selfishness there.”

Instead, there’s harmony.

“I never heard yelling,” Feigofsky said. “The laugh — the Fijian laugh — I can’t explain it; it’s almost magical. These grown men would just giggle like a kid. I think it’s something we lose.”

Some villagers had lost everything but their lives in a recent cyclone.

“The resilience of these people is amazing,” Feigofsky said. “They’re so thankful for everything they have.”

Volunteers made everyday, practical adjustments during their time in Fiji, including in their dress — women invested in skirts that were commonly worn there. Shoulders and knees needed to be covered, while the head, considered sacred, needed to remain bare. Sunglasses weren’t worn.

They were welcomed with a “kava” ceremony, which involved sharing a drink made from dried roots that was mildly narcotic and made drinkers’ mouths tingle.

“They’re so welcoming,” Feigofsky said.

Volunteers stayed with villagers in their wood or aluminum homes, where cisterns were used to catch rainwater to boil for drinking and use for showering.

They ate on the floor. The house where Feigofsky stayed was infested with wasps.

They adjusted.

“After I got off the island and went somewhere with a flushing toilet, I was mesmerized — mesmerized,” Fiegofsky said.

Luxuries as simple — for many — as warm water and ice cubes took on new significance.

Feigofsky said she believes the opportunity to visit a place where life and the people are different is life-changing and vital.

“I think everyone should do it,” she said. “I think we should understand we are so lucky.”

In Fiji, volunteers and villagers used wire and hooks, cutting up their hands in the meantime, to catch tuna that was shared with the entire village.

“I learned it takes very little to make a difference,” Feigofsky said.

Waste wasn’t an option — and since there were no refrigerators, and food couldn’t be saved, villagers were incredibly resourceful in how they used and shared food. Some leftovers were used to feed cows and chickens.

“They are incredibly generous — very generous,” Feigofsky said. “I think they would feed you before they’d feed themselves if there wasn’t enough food.”

And many of them are very religious, meeting to speak and sing in an old church where the Bibles had yellowed pages and highlighted portions.

“I don’t understand how you have that many people on an island that sing that well,” Feigofsky joked.

Months later, Feigofsky, who hopes to return to Fiji in the future, recalled an older woman who lived on the village and became her friend. The woman didn’t speak a word of English, but she’d giggle and smack Feigofsky with her broom and try to throw her in the water.

I came back feeling really good — there’s still humanity on Earth,” Feigofsky said.