Medical Mission: Helping Hands

Medical Mission: Helping Hands
Imagine a mother and father waiting for the arrival of their unborn child. When the day they have anxiously awaited for arrives, their child is born with severe defects, such as cleft palate, club feet, or any other disfigurement.
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Imagine a mother and father waiting for the arrival of their unborn child. When the day they have anxiously awaited for arrives, their child is born with severe defects, such as cleft palate, club feet, or any other disfigurement. The parents find themselves in despair. Hope for a normal life is lost due to the lack of financial resources for surgical reconstruction. The parents’ fears, worries, and unanswered questions wander in their minds like a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

A cleft palate happens when the roof of the baby’s mouth (palate) doesn’t develop as it should during pregnancy. The tissue did not fuse together to form the roof of the mouth. It leaves an opening (cleft) in the palate which may go to the nasal cavity. A cleft palate may appear by itself or with other birth defects of the face and skull such as a cleft lip. Cleft lip is a gap in the skin of the upper lip that expands all the way to the base of the nose. Thus, the name hare lip.

While afflicted children in the United States are immediately attended to these defects, youngsters in other countries are not as fortunate. Thanks to the efforts of agencies such as Community Cares for Kids (CCK), assistance to these impoverished children has become a very common practice.     

Every summer Community Cares for Kids (CCK) and the James Correa Foundation (JCF) travel to Ecuador to aid impoverished communities with free reconstructive surgery. I was fortunate enough to travel with them as a volunteer this summer.

Upon the teams’ arrival at the clinic, I was shocked to see the crowd of prospective patients. I was saddened by the thought of families searching for help.  Patients’ ages ranged from 3 months to 50 years old. Cases from birth defects, accidents, severe burns, and neurological problems were present. The mothers’ faces were filled with anguish and children stared blankly ahead at the visitors. I felt like I was swimming in an ocean of despair.

After a long day of triage, the four surgeons selected 60 patients. They were to perform surgery within the next five days. The head surgeon, Dr. Francis Collini, wished he could have selected more patients.

One of the most unfortunate moments of our trip dealt with saying no to prospective patients due to the lack of medical equipment. One of the mothers became hysterical, crying uncontrollably. Holding her baby boy tightly, the mother’s large brown eyes were filled with sorrow.

The week began with drama. Ventilators, among other supplies, were missing. The urgency to find them in a remote area like Manta, Ecuador felt impossible. Fear of canceling the mission ran through all of us. Mary, JCF’s founder, rushed to the phone and made numerous calls. She was determined to find a solution. After four hours, she walked out of a consultation room with her hair ruffled like Woody Woodpecker for constantly pulling on it and said, “Don’t worry, problem solved. The machinery is on its way.”

I let out a huge sigh of relief. The machinery was delivered but they were outdated models. Despite all obstacles, the team, consisting of 30 members, nurses, physicians, anesthesiologists, and physician assistants, made the best of the situation. They worked in harmony. Prepping of patients, consent and demographic documents were filled out, the traffic flow in the surgery room and post operative care was smooth. At one point there was a patient whose vital signs began deteriorating and was rushed into surgery. He was in his mid thirties and lived his life with a cleft palate. After his first surgery he had difficulty with the blood collecting in his mouth. He was choking in his own blood. The team was fearless. For a second I felt I was watching an episode of ER. Everything was silenced and the team moved so fast I feared blinking. In no way did I want to miss this.  The patient recovered and was discharged within three days.

The day’s journey began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 7:00 p.m. Breaks consisted of our favorites snacks brought from home. Dr. Morhaim and I would guard the front entrance. We would assist with translation and he would evaluate prospective patients seeking help in the mid week.

At no moment was the medical team inconsiderate to the people. Their commitment, love, and hope were expressed with their actions. They gave equal time to all the prospective patients by attentively listening to their concerns. You could not have found a more heartwarming scene than the continuous generosity these talented yet kind professionals repeated throughout the mission.

When a surgical procedure was finished the patient would be transported to recovery. The medical team cared for the patients as if they were caring for their own children or any family member.

As the day wound down, I went outside to the waiting room and spoke with the families. I received warm smiles and hugs from the parents. They were filled with so much happiness. They understood their children’s conditions were not a punishment from God but more of a reason for them to unite as a family. The patients’ parents were eternally grateful for the team’s effort and especially its talented surgical hands. I could do nothing but listen and close the conversation with an enormous hug. Being a mother of three, I could only begin to imagine their heartache. Many of the natives did not have running water or electricity in their homes. Half of them had arrived from the mountainside of the country in search of hope. They traveled by bus for hours to have their children receive the gift of a second chance.

Every morning I visited the patients in their rooms and made sure they had a pleasant first evening after surgery.  The surgeon “made the rounds,” also visiting each and making sure they were feeling better. I was astonished at the incisions. The work the surgeons had performed was remarkable. The satisfaction and relief was easily read on the parents’ facial expressions. The quality care was beyond what these concerned parents had expected. It is what differentiates this group of gifted medical personnel from other foundations.

A case which left me dumbfounded consisted of a young man who survived a gun shot at a point blank range and the impact shattered his left malleolus ( cheek bone). This man, in his early 20s, received no medical treatment after the incident. According to Dr. Collini, “The wounds were allowed to heal on their own through a process called secondary intention.”

Through a CT scan, Dr. Collini observed how the young man had bullet fragments throughout his face. Since the wound was inflicted by a shotgun, the pellets were fired at a low velocity. The young man’s brain and eyes were spared. Fortunately for the young man, Community Cares for Kids was equipped with craniofacial plates and screws, as they were donated by Synthes. Two trays were given-one for mandibular (lower jaw) reconstruction and the other for craniofacial (pertaining to the skeleton of the face without the lower jaw bone and the face). Each one was worth $75,000 totaling a donation of $150,000. There was one problem - no drill. Dr. Collini borrowed a drill from the Ecuadorian Clinic. The only available one was a DeWalt hardware drill. Dr. Collini used the drill to “harvest the cranial (skull) bone graft and apply each plates and screws.”

CCK specializes in birth defects but they follow through with their vision – to aid the underprivileged with free reconstructive surgery. What the team accomplished for this young man has no price. They gave him their ultimate goal a second chance for a normal life.

Towards the ending of the mission we received a simple and sentimental gift. The people which the team helped lack financial resources, yet they went out of their way to purchase small gifts for us, symbolizing the Ecuadorian country. They gave countless blessings and handed the gifts with tears of joy. A mother said “Gracias, por darle la oportunidad de tener una vida normal.” (Thank you for giving him a chance for a normal life.)  The peoples’ gratitude was the most valuable part of the gift. It gave more meaning to the cause.

For the flight home, we traveled four hours on a smelly bus and bumpy roads to Guayaquil. I sat in the bus wondering if this extraordinary team truly knew about its deep inner beauty. These men and women had just spent a week performing miracles without one ounce of regret. They disconnected from the comforts of home and many used their vacation time to volunteer. Not one received financial compensation, yet all found comfort and a source of pleasure in making a positive impact in someone’s life. They wondered into unknown territory like a cowboy entering a new town. Strangers’ eyes followed them, wanting, wishing, and asking for what they had to offer. Through repeated selfless acts, they gained the community’s respect and became local heroes.

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