Nurse on a Mission Trip
I left for Belize on a Saturday after running around getting ready to be gone for a week, I almost plopped into my airplane seat, grateful for a few minutes of respite when I began to wonder, “What have I gotten myself in to?” Going was my daughter-in-law’s idea. As a PA, she had been wanting to go serve as part of a medical mission. My husband, a family doctor, and I readily agreed to join a team that gradually grew to 28 to serve for a week in the inland part of the Central American country of Belize.
Long a part of the British Commonwealth, the country has English as its official language but with a total population of under 350,000 it remains needy with many parts of it underserved medically. Our team went to work in a compound that housed a medical and dental clinic where foreign doctors came 4-5 times a year. We were there to volunteer doing everything from family medicine and dentistry to screenings, hearing assessments with fitting for solar powered hearing aids and giving out of basic “reader” eyeglasses.
The first day we went to church in the morning and then saw 50 people that afternoon. Overwhelmed by the numbers of people and the long lines, we immediately began to work to prioritize, triage and figure out how many people we could realistically serve a day so that we would not end up having people wait all day only to be turned away. We did our very best to work with compassion and efficiency but there were still people we could not get to.
As a nurse and a sort of coordinator for the team, it was my job to help match volunteers with jobs they were suited for and to watch over the general work of the clinic, intervening where there might be problems. Together with other nurse volunteers, including a local nurse who helped with translations when people were not fluent in English (Belizians speak a mix of English, Spanish, Creole, and some Mayan languages), we checked vitals, weights, blood sugars, occasional hematocrits and lots of urine samples for infection and pregnancy. Our team had access to on-site X-rays, some ultrasound and EKG. The dental clinic also had X-ray and was fully functional to do most extractions and some restorative work. Some of the patients moved between dental and medical and even on to eye checks and hearing tests to get the full benefit of all the services provided.
Modern medicine and cell phones made it possible for our doctors to work with physicians back in the US to assess and offer expertise on cases. One young man, age 15, came in with a bullet lodged in his lower brain. The images were sent to a neurosurgeon stateside and also to a radiologist and a pediatrician. Together they concurred that surgery might do more harm than good and that he should not have it removed because of the risks involved with surgery. When seen, he was 2 weeks out from his injury and walking with minor assistance. The educated opinion of the experts, rendered from far away, were a great help to a family that did not know which way to turn.
The most difficult cases we saw were the ones where we felt our hands were tied by circumstances beyond our control. The breast mass, the severe heart murmur in a younger man, the colon cancer, the “spells” that remained undiagnosed—all caused the team anguish as we conferred, prayed, and tried to find a way forward. In a place where few have insurance and the medical system is cash based, not having money for a procedure simply means that it will not happen. In the end, we tried to give some assistance to the hardest cases we faced, but all were daunting as radiation and chemo and surgery are scarce and mostly unavailable. Extended treatments often require travel abroad, something that involves another set of hurdles, including the necessary paperwork and large amounts of cash.
After a busy week of seeing hundreds of patients, I was left with one predominant emotion: gratitude. Gratitude for what we were able to do, gratitude for the appreciative response of those we reached out to and those we worked with, and gratitude for all that we have here at home. In spite of the difficulties involved, overseas medical missions is productive in that it refocuses us on things that really matter: relationships, compassion, and the unity of all humanity as we occupy one fragile planet together. Yes, we are different but my goodness, we have so much in common. Whatever nation we are from, our bodies work in much the same way and malfunction in similar ways; our passion for helping our loved ones is undiminished by deprivation and scarcity of resources and our desire to be treated with dignity is uniform.
My hope is that we did a world of good in our week in Belize. Realistically, I know that the impact was relatively small. Some would argue that the resources spent in taking so many people was not worth the benefit. However, I would argue the opposite. The seeds of love and care sown will continue to bear fruit for years to come and more than that, our team was changed. We all came back with a bigger vision of our place in the world and our greater responsibility for our neighbors, both here and beyond.