3 memorable moments from Rand Paul’s trip to Guatemala

August 22
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is in Guatemala on a medical mission trip. In this video, Paul, a licensed ophthalmologist, checks the eyes of a patient and converses him via an interpreter. (Ed O'Keefe/The Washington Post)

The trip taken this week by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) served not only as a personal mission to provide medical care to some of the world's poorest people, but also a unique opportunity to build out his national profile and expose a side of his background little-known to most Americans.

After four days on the road with Paul, members of his family and aides, here are a few of the most memorable moments from the week:

1. The Drone, and what it symbolized


An unmanned aerial drone, operated by a documentary film crew, hovers on Tuesday near Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other surgeons, nurses and technicians participating in a medical mission at the Lion's Club in Salama, Guatemala. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

It was Tuesday afternoon, and a documentary film crew along for the trip was packing up. But they wanted one last action shot -- an overhead view of the tiny Lion's Club clinic where Paul and the surgeons performed hundreds of surgeries. The crew asked Paul's aides whether it would be okay to quickly usher the surgical teams outside for a quick shot. The senator's team obliged.

Quickly, the documentary crew fired up their drone while the surgeons mingled near the front door. With the device levitating, the surgeons pretended as though they couldn't see it. Paul seemed a little uncomfortable with the staged nature of the shot, and his aides appeared nervous once other reporters on the trip stepped out to watch.

The crew was there with David Bossie, the founder of Citizens United, the group that successfully sued and prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that corporations and labor unions can spend unlimited funds on direct advocacy for or against political candidates. He brought along his daughter and the crew and said little about his plans, other than that his footage would appear in a forthcoming film. Also there were Paul’s political ad makers, Rex Elsass, and Rick Tyler, who is a former close aide to Newt Gingrich. Where and how that footage will be used remains to be seen.

Paul’s entourage also included his 18-year old son, Duncan; his niece, Lisa Paul, who is a pathologist, and her fiancée, Wes Kimbell; his top political aide, Doug Stafford; two spokespeople, Sergio Gor and Eleanor May; and a close friend, Robert Porter, a Kentucky banker and frequent golfing partner.

Reporters from The Washington Post, NBC News the Christian Broadcasting Network and conservative outlets the National Review and Breibart.com rounded out the group. (More on some of the logistical challenges here.) Most of the reporters didn't know that Bossie, Elsass and Tyler would be along for the ride until everyone met in Guatemala City last Sunday morning to make the trip north.

Asked about the size of Paul’s delegation, Stafford was unapologetic. "There’s nothing wrong with letting people see what he does," he said. "This is what he’s done with his life."

2. Rand Paul’s demeanor

Almost immediately, it was evident that Paul is not a touchy-feely guy. While other surgeons, nurses, technicians and volunteers on the trip quickly developed rapports with patients, Paul took a more clinical approach. When patients were being reviewed after surgery, he would work his way down rows of chairs scanning the patients' eyes, informing them of what to expect next and then moving on to the next. He awkwardly accepted hugs and held a few hands, but didn't linger or emote.

One surgeon assessed Paul's demeanor as aloofness. Another said, that’s just the way surgeons are -- clinical, matter-of-fact and eager to move on to the next case. Still another -- a surgeon who said she’s not a Republican, or inclined to agree with most of the senator's positions -- suggested that Paul's focused demeanor in the midst of chaos might lend itself well to the presidency, especially when disasters strike. .

Asked later about his apparent lack of emotion, and whether he enjoyed retail politics, Paul admitted that he doesn't.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I always hung around with old people. I was comfortable with old people, I still am, because most of my patients are very old. Although I’m catching up to where my patients are," he said.

"I like going to a dinner party with potentially 10 supporters or to a business roundtable with 10 or 15 supporters," he added later. "I’m not a huge fan of just ‘Hey, your shirt looks good, hey your shoes look nice.’ Or sort of the empty vacuous cocktail talk. That I’m not so much big into. But I like shaking hands and meeting people. But I actually prefer a small group of discussion when we try to point to what are your concerns, what are ways we can fix them and do something legislatively."

3. This incredible moment


Jorge Recinos carries 80-year-old Petrona Lopez to her surgery appointment because she cannot walk. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Paul was just one member of a team of roughly 70 surgeons, nurses, technicians and volunteers who traveled to Salama -- and it's worth giving them a shout-out.

The trip was primarily organized by the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah. The director of its international outreach division, Alan C. Crandall, is an especially skilled surgeon, who spends two months each year on the road with members of his team performing surgeries in third world countries. Paul and Crandall were joined by several others, including David Chang, a member of the faculty at the University of California San Francisco and past president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (which also sent along top officials as volunteers); and Charles C. Barr, of the University of Lousiville, who conducted countless retinal laser treatments.

The Hope Alliance, based in Park City, Utah, brought along the majority of volunteers, who set up camp at another facility and distributed approximately 8,000 pairs of eyeglasses. Volunteers said they simply were seeking a way to participate in a medical mission -- a practice popular among American Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics and countless nonprofit groups or academic organizations.

So what about the photo? Well, it captures one of the countless number of simply human moments witnessed during the week. In the image, Jorge Recinos, a student a school for special needs children next door to the Lion's Club, is carrying Petrona Lopez, 80, a woman who had difficulty walking. She was first carried into the clinic by her daughter -- but Recinos, eager to help, quickly volunteered to carry her between the waiting room, screening room and operating room over the course of several hours.

Long after Paul, his team and the American surgeons and volunteers head home, folks like Recimos and Lopez will still be living in Salama. This image is a reminder that despite the personal, professional or political intentions of anyone participating on the medical mission this week, everyone had the same goal: Restore or improve eyesight. They succeeded. And they provided help and hope in a terribly desperate place, to Guatemalans who normally don't have things break their way.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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