By Deborah Manog, UH Med Now Journalist
There have been patients who feel like it’s (medical mission) given them a whole new lease on life,” said Dr. Rebecca Sawai, a general surgeon at Kaiser-Permanente.
Her first experience volunteering internationally with a medical mission in Tuguegarao City this year reminded her of why she became a doctor.
“People have a problem, I can do something about it,” said Dr. Sawai.
In developing countries like the Philippines, many health problems are left untreated because medical care is generally unaffordable for most of the population. In Tuguegarao City, the average income is less than five U.S dollars a day.
Fortunately, non-profit organizations including the Aloha Medical Mission, travel to developing countries to provide free health care those who simply cannot afford it.
AMM Vice President of Overseas Missions Dr. Lisa Grininger has been on on about 16 missions over the last 20 years.
Most recently, she and Reverend Alex Vergara coordinated a week-long mission to Tuguegarao City in the Northern Philippines in February.
“For most of the patients, the surgeries would have been too expensive for them to have done,” said Dr. Grininger, who happens to be an alumna of the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM).
For the parents of young Jhay Andrei Tan, who suffered from a painful hernia for a year, the medical mission was truly a blessing.
His mother, Khristine Trinidad, did not know that the mission was in town but she happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“We just went to the church to pray and saw the sign that there was free checkups and surgeries. So it was pure luck and maybe it’s God’s will,” said Trinidad.
Tan’s surgery would have cost them a crippling amount of around 50,000 pesos, equivalent to over eleven hundred U.S. dollars.
But all services provided to the patients were free. Although some of the medical supplies were donated, a great deal of the mission was funded out-of-pocket by 28 AMM volunteers.
“Everyone’s a volunteer, takes their vacation time. so it’s a big commitment for the volunteers to come,” said Dr. Grininger.
A general challenge that medical mission volunteers face is working in a new setting with the local hospital staff, who often have older instruments and a different work flow in the operating room.
“Most of the time we haven’t met them before and they don’t know what to expect from us,” said Dr. Grininger. “We try to do a much bigger volume of surgeries than is usual for the hospital and a lot of the staff will work overtime, long hours, much more than normal. So it’s kind of stressful for them.”
But after the first day, everything smooths out and the volunteers and local staff synch into a well-paced rhythm. On this mission, the volunteers were fortunate to work with such a cooperative and welcoming staff.
“They’re so awesome. They’re happy to be here, they really operate as a team,” said volunteer Shawn Lampe, a nurse practitioner from Orange County, California.
The AMM volunteers worked closely with local doctors and nurses and performed over 70 surgeries, 275 dental extractions and dispensed drugs and medical advice.
General Surgeon Dr. Yeu-Tsu Margaret Lee is 78 years old and will continue volunteering on medical missions for as long as she can.
“The main purpose is to fill the unmet needs of patients and make their quality of life better,” said Dr. Lee,a clinical professor in JABSOM’s Surgery Department.
The Aloha Medical Mission was founded in 1983 under the Philippine Medical Association by Drs. Ramon Sy and Ernesto Espaldon. The organization’s first mission provided free cleft-lip surgery for children in a small town in the Philippines, where this condition is prevalent. Since then the organization’s volunteers have provided medical services in 16 countries.
If you would like to learn more about volunteering with medical missions, contact the global and rural health interest groups at The John A. Burns School of Medicine, JABSOM.