It’s been 11 years since I first heard about Surgicorps. While at the University of Pittsburgh completing my masters degree in Nurse Anesthesia I heard a lecture about volunteer anesthesia by members of Surgicorps. I became interested in volunteering overseas during my initial RN training and after hearing this lecture I knew right away Surgicorps would be the group to get involved with.
I have been on 11 trips now including: Guatemala, Vietnam, Bhutan, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Zambia. It has been a great opportunity to help others and give back to those less fortunate. Participating in life changing surgery is such a neat feeling. Fixing a burn scar contracture can improve daily life so a person can walk or use their arm. Repairing a cleft lip can improve a child’s self-esteem so they are not embarrassed to go to school.
The adversity that some patients have to overcome is amazing. Some families have carried their children for days over mountains while sleeping at night without shelter just for the opportunity to be evaluated. I have been able to travel all over the world and see places I never would have otherwise. It has been enjoyable to experience other cultures.
The chance to sample different foods and local cuisine is something I look forward to on every trip. In Vietnam, due to the absence of forks, I learned quickly how use chop sticks. I have made many new friends on these trips. The seamless teamwork that develops between the medical and non-medical personnel is always impressive. I have gained tremendous experience and skills that have helped me to be a better Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist at home.
What will the next 11 years hold for me on Surgicorps trips? You’ll have to check back in 2027!
My first impression of 11 year old Namgay was one of remarkable sadness. Dressed in the traditional red robe that monks wear, his tiny frame appeared younger than his years. Surrounded by the noisy pre-op room filled with patients and their families, he seemed nervous while he waited to be evaluated by the Surgicorps doctors. There was something magnetic about this little boy, and when I looked into his eyes I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had somehow met him before. Knowing that he had been through so much pain and trauma in his short life, I stayed with him to ease his fears.
Namgay was severely burned as a toddler, after crawling into an open fire while his mother was outside milking the yak. It took two days, on foot, for his family to reach the hospital in Punaka, near his hometown. After 7 months of treatment, he was transferred to another hospital in India where he would spend the next year being treated for burns all over his body. Our team thought it was a miracle that he had even survived, given the nature of his wounds.
Namgay’s father entered the monastery to become a monk at the age of 5 and left when he was 17 to care for his aging parents. His father explained that years ago it was common for a family to have at least one male enter the monastery. He went on to say that times have changed and now it is a choice for a child to become a monk. Namgay entered school after returning from India but was teased relentlessly by the other children, making it too painful to continue there.
At 10 years old, Namgay made the choice to become a monk and has been living in a monastery for a year. His father says that now Namgay is happy and often prefers to stay at the monastery, even during break times when he can come home to visit. Namgay’s parents are overjoyed that their son will have the opportunity to learn, and grow, in an environment where others accept him with open arms.
Next year, Namgay will return to be seen again by our surgeons. We will wait, with anticipation, to see this young monk; one who will surely be a little taller, and a little wiser. His gentle nature and piercing eyes have left an indelible mark on all of us, one that will stay with us until we return to the Land of the Thunder Dragon in 2017 for our 11th mission trip. Until we meet again…
Former University of Pittsburgh Women’s Basketball Coach Agnus Berenato traveled with Surgicorps International to Vietnam in 2015 where she met our patient, Le Thi Thanh, featured in this story. As a non-medical volunteer, Agnus interviewed Thanh and captured the details of her 2 year struggle after a kitchen fire burned her face and neck. Surgicorps returns to Vietnam this fall and, with your continued support, anticipates a follow up visit with Thanh.
In Thanh’s words…
One of my favorite things to do is cook. I was in the kitchen preparing dinner for my husband and two children. A long day of work at our coffee shop made us hungry for the meal and family time we were about to share. I was stirring a pot of soup and an explosion took place. I did not hear anything or notice anything remiss with my gas stove. It just exploded.
My husband, close by, wrapped his arms around me, flames on my chest, arms and hands, fire covering my neck shooting upward of my face. He was strong. I felt his love. He picked me up and doused me in the oak bucket of water in the kitchen.
911 was called…I lay in the HCMC Burn Hospital with only pain and fear…I thought I would die. We had no money to pay for treatment or surgery. My only thoughts were of
Two years later, HOPE arrived. Someone sent a picture of my scarred face to a health organization that aids people with no money but big scars. I am the “Lady with No Mouth”. I have dreams of being helped, having surgery, having a mouth again, releasing my neck of burned scar tissue. I dream of food. I dream of smiling. I dream of having grandkids that are not afraid of me. I dream of courage, I used to have that! I dream of not wearing a mask every day, every place. I dream of retirement with my brave husband. I dream of eating any kind of food. I dream of my inner beauty shining through my scars. The health organization came to town.
They would see me. They did not need money. They would not be afraid. They gave me HOPE.
I waited in line to be evaluated. I was so nervous. I had no fear, no pain (because my neck and face were one, as my skin and tissues formed a mass of scarring). I prayed, “Oh my Buddha, please let this group see me fit for surgery. ” Again, it crept back…
When I met with Dr Jack and his Surgicorps team, my fear and sadness disappeared. I could not understand what they were saying, but I felt
Maybe, just maybe, I would get a mouth. That’s all I wanted, a mouth to eat with! Dr Jack said “YES” and I prayed to Buddha again, “Please let me have courage and trust”.
I had my surgery. I had pain, but no fear. I never thought I would die. I can eat all kinds of food. I smile. I have courage. I can laugh. I can shake my head. I am so thankful.
Surgicorps did for me what I could not have done on my own. I had no money, no insurance. I had NO hope. Surgicorps operated on me, gave me a mouth, released my neck, did skin grafts, gave me TLC , hugged me, wiped my tears away.
My constant sadness was replaced by HOPE, a future, a smile, a nod, a dream come true.
I am so thankful and appreciative to the team at Surgicorps. I am so thankful for my friend sending a picture of “The Lady with No Mouth” to Thanh and Linda. I am so thankful that Dr Jack said “YES”. I am so thankful I am no longer “The Lady with No Mouth!”
Surgicorps is preparing to leave for the 2nd Annual Sarah Pettrone Memorial Trip, which will be our 10th visit to Bhutan from April 22-May 3, 2016. Our team members bring a vast amount of talent and resources on each trip to help us change the lives of many. There are a total of 16 team members including 9 from Pennsylvania and 7 from other states.
Michele Misher-Harris, Cliff and Mary Bierman along with Naomi Quillopa and Warren Schubert, Ron Stiller and James Fleck are the veteran Bhutan volunteers. Mike Brett, DeNese Olson, Sara Reardon, and Charles Yang will join us on their first trip to Bhutan. Surgicorps founder, Jack Demos, will lead the medical team and Linda Esposto, Director of Programs and Logistics, will ensure a successful trip for all.
The other team members are first time Surgicorps volunteers and include Donald Laub, Maggie Mangham, and Alexander Preus. We look forward to once again serving our friends in Bhutan. Please follow us on social media for trip updates and pictures.
When I first met Linda Esposto of Surgicorps International I asked her, “Do you have any need for a Basketball Coach?” She replied, “We don’t need a Basketball Coach, but we do need good people.” The wheels in my mind began to turn, and my heart began to pump!
Knowing nothing about Surgicorps or Vietnam, I took a giant leap of blind faith. I was excited to receive details regarding our trip: what to bring (definitely individually wrapped chocolates), daily schedules and visa/flight information, but I still did not know what to expect, or what role I would perform…but the appeal for “good people” kept me motivated.
The introduction to the Surgicorps team took place on a mini bus that transported us to the hospital for Screening Day (an important day to determine who would be scheduled for surgery). Each volunteer and team member shared their name, hometown, and their connection to the Surgicorps cause.
The bus pulled into a small driveway and many people — young and old — were cheering and yelling, waving hello in welcome. I thought, “Why are they here? And, what are they cheering for?” I had only seen this type of fanfare after a team won an important game or championship, but I quickly realized they were here for us! They were here for Surgicorps!
Many of the welcome committee were former patients who returned annually for continued reconstructive surgery by Surgicorps doctors. The joy and tears in their eyes told me I was about to take part in something special. There was Jack (the Medical Director) saying hello and Michele (the Lead Anesthesiologist) hugging and greeting folks like long lost friends. I started my journey with a high five for anyone that would return the offering.
The week was a blur. The amazing Surgicorps team saw 112 patients and performed 73 surgeries. Friendships were made, jokes were told and relationships strengthened. Fatigue set in, humor screamed, and great food was shared.
Countless lives were changed.
Yes, the lives of those with cleft lips and palates, ear reconstructions, burns, and neck releases, but this work also impacted the patient’s families and communities. Many patients are so badly scarred they can’t go to school or rarely leave their home. This team gave hope to every person that was seen. Physical appearance is one thing, but confidence is another and Surgicorps gave every person a little touch of swag!
The doctors were masterful, the nurses amazing, volunteers willing to do whatever was needed, and with Linda as lead, we had an amazing TEAM. Coaching teams has been my business, but I pride myself on being a great teammate. There is no better TEAM than Surgicorps and I am honored to be a new teammate.
My heart melted with every baby I carried, every mom I hugged, every fist I bumped, every high five I gave, every tear I shed and every smile I received. I did things I did not think possible; I learned things I never imagined; and I loved every minute of the experience.
Surgicorps reinforced my belief that there is no “I in TEAM,” and “Teamwork makes the Dream Work.” I find myself praying for the woman who we gave a new mouth, the little girl who had her wrist released, the teenage boy who had ear reconstruction and the mom who sobbed when she saw her baby with an upper lip for the first time. I cry silently to think how lucky I am. Indeed, this was a special game and I was happy to have a uniform.
My emotions run deep for the Surgicorps team that so graciously opened their arms to a Basketball Coach who knew nothing of medicine or surgery. I returned home from Vietnam with a mission: I would be part of a medical trip every year. I dream of next year when the bus pulls in and the cheers are heard and the smiles warm our hearts. I will greet the parade of patients knowingly — with joy, compassion and happiness, because giving is the greatest gift of all. Linda was right, Surgicorps just needs good people!
Surgicorps is preparing to embark on our 12th medical mission to Vietnam from October 30th-November 10th with 21 medical and non-medical team members. This will be our final trip of 2015.
We will once again partner with Odonto Maxillo Facial Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our team this year includes: 10 members from Pennsylvania, 3 from Arizona, 3 from Virginia and 1 each from Canada, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Brian Gierl returns this year as the first attending physician from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was a resident on his first trip to Vietnam in 2011. Willie Manteris will return to provide dental services. Robert Schemmer is excited to expand Surgicorps’ services by providing dermatological care. Other return team members include Thanh Armagost, Tu Armagost, Christine Bowman, Tara Burns, Paul Kim, Michele Misher-Harris, and Duc Pham.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: Agnus Berenato, Andrew Berenato, Janet Belitsky, Jamie Boykin, Caitlin Hickey, Lauren McGrath, Nancy Mitchell, Tran Nguyen and Bruce Yee.
Jack Demos will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will ensure each aspect of the trip runs smoothly.
Best wishes team Vietnam 2015 as you set out to change many lives. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter and most recently on Instagram and LinkedIn!
The air is hot and thick in the makeshift waiting room at Beit CURE Hospital of Zambia, a pediatric teaching hospital specializing in the treatment and care of children living with physical disabilities. There is standing room only in a crowded area where mothers wait with patience for their children to be taken to the OR for surgery. Some have walked great distances with their babies strapped to their backs while others have traveled hundreds of miles by bus.
They hear about Surgicorps through a pipeline of sources; some learn by word of mouth or through a chance radio broadcast. CURE’s staff spreads the word and reaches out as far as Zambia’s Copperbelt (hours away) to provide impoverished villagers with the opportunity for life-changing surgery. Many have waited an entire year for the Surgicorps doctors to return and perform a second and even third surgery. In a country where tribal medicine and natural healing with herbs is still practiced, some of the parents have stepped away from their cultural realm and comfort zone to seek help, out of sheer desperation.
Three operating rooms provide a wide scope of surgeries. Frequently seen in developing countries are children born with extra digits, who come to have extra fingers and toes removed. Because of the use of open flames for cooking, severe burns are also customary in the rural areas of Zambia. Some children suffer from limbs that have literally melted together from burns and undergo surgery to release the contracture, followed by skin grafts. Webbed fingers are separated, cleft lips and palates are repaired, and sometimes an unexpected injury can arrive that will startle even the most seasoned medical professionals. Such was the case with a 3-month-old infant whose young mother brought him in without his left foot and with his bone exposed. The severe injury was presumably caused from a snakebite that went untreated.
There is a common thread amongst these modest, polite, and humble people. They are kind and gentle souls whose love and devotion to their children is palpable. They are unentitled and accepting of all outcomes, even when learning that surgery might not provide the miracle that they had hoped for. They are never with anger, and always with a thank you and gratefulness.
It is in the patient ward that we are able to experience the true essence of these religious and joyful people. They have appreciation for the smallest of things; a new stuffed toy, a sundress, a coloring book with crayons, or a simple bottle of nail polish. For many, their hospital stay is seen as good fortune, mostly because they are assured three meals a day for themselves and for their other children in tow. Although shared, they have a clean bed, an indoor bathroom, and a running shower. There is a sisterhood established amongst them, even those who have met for the first time. We observed each other with a sense of wonder and with admiration.
In our final hour, this group of magnificent mothers joined together and sang for us. They sang in their native language and brought each and every one of us to tears. Through song, they thanked us for changing the lives of their children. Through song, they blessed us, and they blessed our children. They thanked us for giving them back their dignity. It was with pure joy that we basked in the warmth and gratefulness of these beautiful people. We left the Beit CURE Hospital of Zambia knowing that their lives had been changed, that their lives had been bettered because of us. What they didn’t know was how much they had changed our lives. What they didn’t know was that we left wishing that we were a little bit more like them.
As I am packing for my fourth trip with Surgicorps, people often comment “Oh, you are such a good person!!” I’m thrilled that’s what they think, but the truth is I’m really not that good. I do it because it makes me incredibly happy. I have so much fun I just can’t stay home. Each trip is a new adventure. I travel to places I’ve never imagined seeing, with people I’ve never met, to work long hours in hospitals that aren’t exactly like the hospitals at home. I’ve learned new languages, tried new food, followed new customs. I’ve learned to always carry a flashlight, a multi-tool, and duct tape, how to wrap a lungi so it won’t fall off, and how to use a rural Asian bathroom. I’ve made new friends across the world, and seem to have brought a little comedy to the locals with my attempts at speaking new languages.
The cynics say “Oh, you’re trying to save the world”…hardly. But we do make an enormous difference in the lives of the kids lucky enough to be able to reach us. The endless poverty, starvation, illness are unimaginable. I remember the woman and her young daughter burned from having acid thrown in their faces, the couple who lost four children under the age of 5 to illness, the man so severely scarred from diesel burns I couldn’t find his eyes to look at him. There are children that do not fuss, waiting all day for surgery having nothing to eat, and do not cry with exercise or bandage changes.
What impresses me the most is the dignity of the poorest of poor, the grace with which they face unimaginable tragedies and horrific injuries, often from violence. The gratitude of the hospital staff when I show them a simple strap that can help people that lost use of their hands hold an object, and their pride when I ask for information to take home with me to share their skill in building adaptive equipment from nothing but used cardboard boxes and glue. And these people, who seem to have nothing to give, give the most, in one place literally by singing songs of gratitude. (Yes, we all cry!).They teach me the strength of the human spirit, they exemplify that joy and hope can prevail under desperate living conditions.
A message home from my first trip still holds true: “Who would have dreamed that I would pay so much money to travel so far and work so hard and love every second of it”. On each trip I laugh and I cry and I come home with experiences that warm and fill my soul. Pictures and words cannot begin to explain what happens on a Surgicorps trip. I don’t do it to be nice, but doing it does open my heart wider than I ever knew possible. And I know that each time I travel, I come home just a little bit nicer. I give five days of work, what I get back is priceless.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” –Helen Keller
Surgicorps is set to leave for our 5th mission trip to Zambia from September 12th-19th with 21 medical and non-medical team members. These words by Helen Keller are lived by each team member who gives so much to make each trip a success.
We will once again partner with Beit CURE International Children’s Hospital in Lusaka. Our team this year includes: 9 members from Pennsylvania, 6 from Massachusetts, 2 from New York, 2 from Colorado and 1 each from Virginia and Arizona.
Tara Burns will be joining our team for her 21st mission with Surgicorps. Other return team members include Christine Bowman, Diane Bremer, Joanie Dunn, Lori Ellis, Betty Hearne, Alex Hutchinson, David Kim, Scott Pearson, Tamara Rychok and Alyson Winston.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: KC Collins, Rama Joshi, Richard and Bernadette Montilla along with their son, Antonio, DeNese Olson, Charles Yang and David Yui.
Jack Demos will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will be ensuring each aspect of the trip runs smoothly.
Thank you team Zambia for dedicating your talent, skills, passion, time, energy and resources to our friends in Lusaka. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter and most recently on Instagram and LinkedIn!
I was sitting in class when my professor first mentioned her trips to Guatemala with Surgicorps International, and I instantly knew I had to go. I served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2011-2013, where I worked in rural elementary schools, lived with a host family, and became part of a close-knit community. The experience had been life changing for me. Witnessing the lack of psychosocial care for Guatemalan children in clinics and hospitals led to my discovery of the field of child life and set me on my career path of becoming a certified child life specialist. Child life specialists support children and families facing challenging experiences related to healthcare and hospitalization, and I am a graduate student working towards certification so that I can help spread the field internationally to places like Guatemala.
Through Surgicorps International I had the amazing opportunity to return to Guatemala to do the work I had first dreamed of doing while I was a Peace Corps volunteer. When our team walked into the hospital at Obras Sociales Del Santo Hermano Pedro and I immediately began interacting with patients and speaking Spanish, I felt like I had come home. I was thrilled that I was able to use my Spanish skills to translate for surgeons and nurses during screening day and the days that followed, as well as use my training in child life to help keep children calm and happy before and after surgery.
On my third day in the hospital, one of the surgeons asked me to prepare a seven-year-old boy, Marcos, for his upcoming surgery to remove a mass from his hand. When I sat down to meet with Marcos and his father, they both appeared nervous and fidgety. In broken Spanish, Marcos’ father explained that they had traveled for two days to reach the clinic, and that they lived in the far away department of Huehuetenango and spoke a Mayan language called Chuj. Guatemala has over 21 Mayan languages, and I had learned basic Q’anjob’al during my Peace Corps service, a language that is closely related to Chuj.
In Q’anjob’al, I asked Marcos’ father his name, told him mine, and commented on the weather. His face broke into an incredulous smile. “How do you speak that?” he gasped. “Are you not American?” We began to laugh as Marcos smiled shyly, and I explained that I had lived in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango during the Peace Corps and learned Q’anjob’al there. The mood in the room lightened as we compared words in Q’anjob’al and Chuj, and Marcos’ father told me about their lives in an area not far from where I had once lived. Marcos came from a very poor family and was one of many brothers and sisters, and his father struggled to find work to keep the family clothed and fed. Marcos often missed school due to pain from the mass in his hand, which made it difficult for him to write. I read Marcos and his father a prep book that explained what would happen before, during, and after surgery, and engaged Marcos in medical play so he would not be afraid of medical equipment in the operating room and would understand how it was used. By the end of our meeting, Marcos and his father were relaxed, comfortable, and ready for surgery, and I felt a special bond with them both.
I accompanied Marcos to the operating room and was by his side to comfort him when he came out of anesthesia after his surgery. I then had the opportunity to spend a few hours with him in the recovery room. We played games on the iPad, colored, and talked about his life. He reminded me of my host brother in Santa Eulalia, who was also seven when I began my service. It was a joy to spend so much time with him and help him cope with a new and potentially scary experience and environment. Thanks to the generous donations of people in the United States, we were also able to supply Marcos and his family with new school supplies, clothes, and toys. I will always remember how proud and happy Marcos looked when I slipped a brand new jacket over his shoulders, or when he wrote his name on a piece of paper after surgery.
During my week volunteering with Surgicorps International, not only was I able to achieve my dream of offering child life services in Guatemala, I also reconnected with Guatemala in a way that exceeded all my expectations. It was an honor to give back to a country and people that had given so much to me during my time in the Peace Corps. I know firsthand the life-changing impact surgery will have for children like Marcos and his family, who would not be able to afford such procedures on their own. I am so grateful that Surgicorps International is doing such important healing work in the country so dear to my heart, and around the world.
As a child, I often fantasized about what I would be when I grew up: a famous actress, a
percussion player with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the President of the United States. I had some
pretty lofty dreams until I decided on my true calling: I wanted to be a general surgeon like my
dad, Dr. Ramakrishna and play percussion for the Pittsburgh Symphony in my free time.
While I never made it to medical school (or played with the Symphony), I often wondered what
it would be like to work with my dad. Surgicorps International gave me the opportunity to find out.
I first joined the Surgicorps team on their trip to Guatemala in 2011. I worked alongside my dad
and several other doctors as a non-medical volunteer. I wasn’t convinced that I could be a useful
member of the team, but I quickly learned that every members’ talents could be put to use in
some way. I helped with paperwork, acted as a runner for my dad’s operating room, and
comforted young children in the recovery room. In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited
these trips. They provided me with a chance to give back to communities in need and
a chance to connect with my dad in a meaningful way.
I have always known that my dad’s profession makes him an important figure in his patients’
lives, but the Surgicorps trips provide a wonderful lens into my dad’s impact on others. During
the trips, I watch him screen patients, indicating his concern for their health, and gaining their
trust. I follow him as he makes rounds each morning to ensure that patients are healing and
feeling better. I see him comfort mothers who are taking care of their young children, and how
he makes every member of his operating room team feel comfortable. Even the medical staff at
the clinic is at ease with him despite a language barrier.
The Guatemalan people have made quite an impression on my dad, and it’s easy to see that he
has done the same to them. This summer, I will return to Guatemala on my fourth trip with Surgicorps.
Being a part of this medical mission has been life changing. I will work with a team that I now consider a close
group of friends, and once again, I have the opportunity to work alongside my dad.
My dad has made a career out of helping others. Surgicorps lets me see this important work in
action and it finally allows me to help him give back to his deserving patients. For that, I am
Please consider supporting the team’s efforts through a contribution to our Crowdrise campaign!
SPOTLIGHT ON 2015 GUATEMALA TEAM MEMBERS
We are preparing for our 13th trip to Guatemala from August 8th-15th with a team of 33 talented, dedicated and amazing medical and non-medical volunteers! Our team this year includes: 17 members from Pennsylvania, 11 from Massachusetts, 2 from Ohio and 1 each from Arizona, Colorado and Canada!
Dave Fortun, one of our veteran Guatemala team members, is making his 11th trip this summer. Other return team members include Heather Archambeault, Kerry Bennett, Joy Bohan, Denise Esposto and her daughter, Tomasina Boyd, Stephanie Charron Butt and her son, Dylan Butt, Kevin Cohen, Amelia Hare, Meredith Harris, Laurie Kiehn, Carlos Mata, Judith McNicholas and her son, Aidan, Pat Kelly, Dave Metro, Nagamalli Ramakrishna and his daughter, Sangeetha, and Gregg Weidner and his wife, Nicole Tomba Weidner.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: Kyle Amsler, Liliana Camison Bravo, Gregory Halenda, Caitlin Hall, Anne Kamarchik, Ella Kipervasser, Farzaneh Nabizadeh, Lynn Novier and Katie Respet.
David Kim will once again be our Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will be orchestrating the many details to ensure the success of the mission. Our new Executive Director, Kate Freed, will be taking her inaugural trip with Surgicorps. Stephanie Charron Butt will be in a new role of Trip Coordinator.
Surgicorps thanks each of these volunteers who work tirelessly each day to help provide much needed services and support to our friends in Guatemala. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter and most recently on LinkedIn!
It was an honor to be a part of Surgicorps International’s maiden voyage to Hospital de San Lorenzo in Valle, Honduras. San Lorenzo is located 60 miles south and a two hour bus ride from the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. Our 8 member team became the first Surgical Brigade that the non-profit organization, Global Brigades hosted in Honduras. By partnering with Global Brigades, Surgicorps was able to reach a large number of patients from the rural communities already being served by their public health and mobile medical clinics.
With over 40 patients on the schedule following clinic on Sunday, we knew we had our work cut out for us as we were limited to one operating room. Hospital de San Lorenzo has two operating rooms, one of which is used around the clock for emergency c-sections and other emergency surgeries. When I inquired about the number of “emergency” c-sections being done, I was given a very good explanation. Some women travel by bus or by walking for several days to reach the hospital. It is their practice to do a c-section as soon as the women arrive because they have nowhere to stay until they go in to labor. This makes the trip more manageable as they can deliver their baby and be back home in a shorter amount of time.
With one OR and an 8 member team, we faced some long days to complete as many surgeries as possible. Each day, we greeted new patients at the hospital after they heard about our services. Everyone was evaluated and accommodated as possible into the surgery schedule. The surgeries ran the gamut from extra fingers and toes, cleft lip and palates, syndactylies, burn scar contractures, disfiguring neurofibromatosis of the face and scalp, and broken bones that had not healed correctly.
One very patient gentleman named Mario has been battling a lower leg infection for nearly four years. He was full of smiles and blessings for our team after we completed a wound debridement on Monday followed by skin grafts from multiple donor sites on his opposite leg on Friday. We have given him hope and a chance to heal which is so much better than the alternative of an amputation.
A young man named Oscar, working as a barber, was already suffering from a severe case of kyphoscoliosis when he was in an accident involving paint thinner. The accident left him with multiple burn scar contractures, including the axilla, and unable to raise or fully extend his left arm. In addition to a scar release and skin graft he also received a muscle flap involving the entire left side of his torso. He left us on Friday, after a painful but necessary dressing change requiring sedation, with a smile on his face and many thanks. Knowing he has several weeks of healing and multiple dressing changes to come he still has a positive outlook with the hopes of being able to get back to his job at the barber shop.
Karen is a 14 month old beautiful baby girl who has the appearance of an 8 month old malnourished baby. She came to us seeking a bilateral cleft lip repair. Upon further examination and review of her past medical records it was confirmed that she also suffers from Wolf Hirschorn’s Disease. This disease leaves a child with very distinct facial features, failure to thrive, intellectual disabilities, weak muscle tone leading to delayed sitting, standing and walking and even seizures. The repair of her bilateral cleft lip left her mother incredibly happy. She sent the team a message on Friday expressing how grateful the entire family was. Even more important than her cosmetic appearance, is that the repair should lead to improved feeding and nutritional status giving Karen an increased chance of survival.
These are just a few of the stories and beautiful memories that we will carry with us in our hearts. It is always humbling and an honor to be graciously welcomed and appreciated by the underprivileged communities of our world. As a team, we give many thanks to Global Brigades for hosting us in Honduras and allowing us to be a part of the beautiful community of San Lorenzo Valle, Honduras.
Dr. Robert Schemmer, a dermatologist from Canada , joined our medical team as a first time volunteer to Bhutan recently. He treated monks at the Rinpung Dzong Monastery as well as patients in the clinic. His services were much needed and appreciated by the Bhutanese people. Surgicorps will hopefully incorporate these services into future trips! Thank you to Dr. Schemmer for sharing some of his daily blog posts.
Day 2–up at 5 AM and the surgical team was in the Operating room by 6:15. I went along for some supplies and am now waiting to see patients at a local monastery–that should be interesting. Meanwhile the surgeries–will number about 15 cases per day are busily underway. Interestingly about half of the team members are young–refreshing that so many people are up to this challenge, willing to offer their time and go to the expense of a very worthwhile cause. Wonderful scenery, although a bit cloudy so no view of the snow capped Himalayas.
Day 3 Bhutan at the Rinpung Dzong Monastery–Today I worked with the monks seeing about 20 odd for minor little skin and other medical problems. As I got to go inside the monastery where the public does not get to, it was quite an honor to meet the Lama or head and have tea and lunch first followed by a group medical consultation. About twenty or so monks ranging in age from about 15 to 60 were all gathered together listening to each individual’s medical problems along with my translator and driver. This was a bit unusual for me and I was thankful that no “personal” areas of the skin were involved! Everything was dealt with from actual treatments to advice on better eating etc.
At the end of our little 4 hour session, I enjoyed a ceremony–PUJA followed by a group photograph in the courtyard of the monastery. This created a lot of tourist interest and suddenly we became the focus of a lot of photographers. Anyway, all was done and I had a great time and will go back today to deliver some much needed medicine for those that were diagnosed. More to follow…..
Day 4–Today I spent most of the morning and a bit of the afternoon seeing patients with the team of Traditional Medicine Doctors. Very interesting are their treatments and we treated some with traditional medicine and others with allopathic medicine.
The highlight was the Royal luncheon hosted by the Queen and her daughter in their small palace (really huge and one of several). We all had to go in traditional dress called the GHO for men and KIRA for women and walked in twos up to the palace where the queen greeted us. We then went inside and a number of questions were asked and when team leader Dr. Jack (it’s his 9th mission) introduced us and told her Majesty that there was a Dermatologist amongst us, she immediately talked about her (bad) experiences with Dermatologists (no personal information of course in front of the group).
We then had a wonderful luncheon and after we ate, the Queen invited me, her daughter and one of her aides to do a personal consultation. She is a wonderful, warm and down to earth majesty and we talked and I examined her and gave her advice. In all I was with the three women for about 20 minutes. A real privilege. Afterwards we went into the courtyard with our group and a number of high ranking officials to have group pictures taken by the official photographer as private pictures are forbidden. Then we said our goodbyes and the Queen presented each of us with gifts–mine was a book on Bhutan. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and most enjoyable.
Day 5–Today was somewhat uneventful but included is a typical house/building showing Bhutanese architecture along with some of the patients that I saw including the 88 year old father of the Governor (Dzongda) for the entire Paro district. Again, an honor that a high official would bring his father to see me.
A lot of infectious skin diseases here, along with common ones like I see in Canada. I cannot take any photos in the operating room for patient privacy but will try to send a few (if I get them from the official photographer) to give you an idea of what the surgeons do her. (there are examples on the website as well). Tomorrow its back to the monastery after some hospital clinics to see the monks–the children are so cute and it almost breaks your heart that 6-10 year olds have been taken there to get an education as their parents are just too poor to raise, feed and educate them.
Day 6–Friday–Well the week has certainly passed by quickly and the surgical team has done over 70 surgeries working non stop and long hours. My clinics have been busy both in hospital and at the local monastery and today was another trip there after my morning clinic. Surgicorps team members are expected to multi-task and one of my tasks today was not only to see the monks with their skin problems, but also to do some simple refraction for reading glasses.
First, we were graciously invited to lunch with the lama (head of the monastery) in private quarters, but because of time constraints (this week was a very holy week, filled with prayers and ceremonies, lunch was delayed as the fun with refraction started. The sheer joy on the monks’ faces, both old and fairly young, when they tried out their new reading glasses was heartwarming. Part of their life of dedication is studying and do they read a lot–often under poor lighting conditions.Between refraction, a stream of young, and older monks mixed in with various skin issues were treated. My translator and assistant was a huge help as I focused on the medical and we managed to see about 50 patients. Then a delicious lunch of rice, asparagus and a potato vegetable (mild) curry. was enjoyed .
Back to the hospital for a couple of patients and tonight our gala dinner at one of the ore upscale hotels here in Paro. Tomorrow our group will hike to a monastery perched literally on a cliff–so our weekend will be more recreational. Sunday its off to Thimphu, the capital, for more sightseeing. Of course, Monday is the final day of work. The surgery team will check the post operative results and I will see as many patients as I can before the touristy part of my trip throughout some of the country starts.
Day 7–Well the week of work passed quickly and over 70 surgeries were performed by the team of plastic surgeons, anesthetists and nurses and other volunteers and as for myself I saw between 125-150 patients visiting the local monastery three times with another visit planned tomorrow as there were a few children that not only had skin diseases, but also pink eye.
This weekend we started off on a trek to the famous Tiger’s Nest–a landmark in Bhutan. This monastery is perched against a rock-cliff over 10,000 feet elevation the the climb takes about 2.5 hours starting from about 7500 feet elevation. We started off at 7:00 am as the sun gets hot later. One can ride a horse part way up, but of course that takes some of the fun out of this adventure. At the monastery–you finally think great I’m here, but then there are a lot of steps to continue the climb up and into the inside. All materials were brought up there manually and partially with pack animals although they cannot use them the last 30 minutes as the path is too narrow. The building which burned partially in 1998, took 10 years to rebuild and is truly a wonder and the views are fabulous. not for those afraid of heights. Today it’s off to Thimphu, the capital, to look around. The skies are brilliant today, the air is fresh and what more could one ask for.