December 16, 2013

Hope in Brazil: Lori Shearn’s memoir of South America

The SS Hope, a U.S. Navy hospital ship
The SS Hope, previously a U.S. Navy hospital ship, sailed as a roving medical oasis from 1958 to 1973. Kaiser Permanente physician Martin Shearn, his wife Lori, and their three children spent time on the ship in Brazil on its last voyage.

Forty years ago, in 1973, Permanente physician Martin Shearn took on a year-long assignment with the humanitarian organization Project Hope. As chief of staff on the SS Hope, Dr. Shearn’s mission was to bring knowledge of modern medical care to a poor coastal town in Northeast Brazil.

Like Permanente physicians who render crisis care in storm-ravaged places like the Philippines and Haiti today, Dr. Shearn and his wife, Lori, embarked on the adventure with a dual goal: to help others and to enrich their own lives by experiencing the culture of a South American country.

Lori Shearn, an active participant in the mission, took copious notes throughout the Shearns’ year in Brazil. In recent years, she has turned those notes into a memoir that reveals the intricacies of adapting to a strange culture and how at times attempts to bridge differences can result in a comedy of errors.

The Shearns’ adventures offered cultural lessons in time warps, creepy and ubiquitous creatures, South American pomp and circumstance, the joys and dangers of Carnaval, the rigors of providing medical care to those never treated before and the thrill of alligator hunting in the Amazon.

Lori Shearn taking notes on the Shearn family trip to Brazil in 1973.
Lori Shearn took plenty of notes on the Shearn family mission to northeast Brazil in 1973.

By Lori Shearn, Heritage writer

It’s hard to believe, but it all began because Spanish seemed like the extension course that most conveniently fit into our schedule that fall in 1970.

Oh, of course we knew that they speak Portuguese in Brazil, but it all began with Spanish.

Spanish class was going rather well, so we decided that we should be going someplace where the language is spoken. A Mexican vacation, perhaps, or why not a medical service somewhere in South America?

Martin, my husband, was an internist, a physician who has educated a great many young doctors in a group practice in California, and he was also affiliated with the university where he taught. Inquiries around the medical school produced a slew of opportunities for a Spanish-speaking doctor who wanted to participate in a medical mission to South America. We considered them all.

Then we heard about Project Hope. This is a medical organization that disseminates not only medical treatment, but more importantly, medical know-how. It was made to order for us, and further investigation disclosed that the next mission would be to South America, Venezuela to be exact, and that they were recruiting physicians for a two-month stint and that wives were welcome. We applied.

Project Hope makes a fascinating offer

Pretty soon a most surprising reply arrived: “With your qualifications, would you be interested in the position of director of medical education for this voyage?” What a fascinating offer. Medical education was the subject Martin knew best and to be able to practice it in a cross-cultural setting speaking Spanish was perfect.

Our three children were all in college, and for Martin and me, a leave away from the humdrum world of our suburbia was an attractive prospect. A slight change was mentioned at this point. Instead of two months, in this more complex position, we would need to stay for the full year.

The personal conflict of leaving our children alone for a whole year had to be overcome. I assured them that they could visit us (I got their tickets in advance) as long as they made arrangements with their schools for a leave, and I told them that they would have to have a job when they got there.

The next phone call from the Hope office requested Dr. Shearn to come to Washington to plan next year’s activities. “Oh, and by the way, the ship will not be going to Venezuela, but instead, to Brazil,” they told him.

Can we learn Portuguese in time?

What to do? Our Spanish-speaking adventure was to end up in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Should we still go? Our emotional commitment had been made, so we felt the answer would have to be yes.

But how do you switch from intermediate Spanish to beginning Portuguese in three months? There were no Portuguese classes in our area. The first experience we had listening to a tape demonstrated the complicated pronunciation, which sounded like a combination of Czech and Romanian. Another totally new language seemed like too much to handle.

With a stroke of good luck, a teacher from Rio just happened to walk into Martin’s office as a patient. She offered to help us delve into the new mysteries of the Portuguese language. Slowly we progressed. She invited all her Brazilian friends to our house often and nobody was allowed to speak English.

Our new friends were all so impressed and grateful that we were going to Brazil to help people in the underdeveloped area of the Northeast that they wanted to help us learn the language.

Another bombshell challenge

In the next phone conversation with the Hope office, a new development was introduced almost immediately. Martin was apprised that there was no chief of staff since the man so designated previously had been reassigned. Would Martin take the position in addition to that of director of education?

Upon meeting the rest of the permanent staff members in the Washington orientation, Martin and I had a lengthy consultation and then decided that he had best accept this challenge too.

The ship was to sail for South America in two weeks with the full contingent of nursing, medical and support staff. Under the existing circumstances, Martin hesitated but felt he had to accept the broader role of chief of staff, however daunting. He vowed to make the year’s project a success, and he never regretted his decision.