Skip to main content

The volunteer:
The 789 Austin/Garcia trip is my first mission trip, I have been entrusted with the role of blogger/photographer. As I meet the cast of characters, my impression is that they are a kind and boisterous bunch. Maybe two out of the group can be qualified as quiet types, three would be a stretch. I wonder how everyone will get along (photo 1).

We dive right into the first day, assembling the clinics as soon as we arrive at the village. This involves unloading a very large truck with supplies and setting everything up. Everyone is doing their part carrying and building, the small, the mighty, and everyone in between (photos 2, 3, and 4).

Multiple opinions are voiced, and a final layout emerges, it takes ingenuity, but every space is utilized to the fullest, a nook is even transformed into a serviceably dark ultrasound “room”.

The wheel-chair assemblers are over-achievers and have already built several before the day is over (photo 5).

Everything is set up and ready to welcome patients the next day.
We disembark from the bus and the first wave of people is there, ready for us to get started. I don’t even make it through the door and already an adorable little girl in the lineup has caressed my arm as I walk by, a wordless gesture of affection.
I give the girl and her mom a big smile and hurry off to start the day.

The patient:
The 789 Austin/Garcia team is my first chance to meet with American doctors and medical staff. The whole team is wearing scrubs, it is a team of scrubs. I am Maria, my daughter, Ayda, and I travelled a long way to get here but I am hopeful it will be worth it. Ayda reaches out to take the hand of one of the scrubs as she walks by and gets a smile in return.

We are brought inside and, once it is our turn we speak to a woman in triage, her accent is different, Puerto Rican (photo 6), she says. I explain my daughter’s problem and my own, she patiently listens and points us to our next stop. I am barely out of my seat and she is already helping the next patient approaching.
We move further into the open space that is broken up into different clinics and head over to the paediatrics section. As we walk over, I notice all the scrubs are busy, at one of the stations we pass by I hear another Puerto Rican accent (photo 7), he seems to be trying to make a shy patient more comfortable.

When paediatrics is ready for us we sit and I explain Ayda’s broken leg. The scrub from earlier is taking pictures, Ayda looks into the camera and I try not to show too much of the strain I feel (photo 8). It has been a hard path, my daughter is now six years old and she broke the leg three years ago. The doctors never put a cast on it, the bone was left out of place and it pokes out of the skin. They gave her antibiotics for infection but I could not afford the cost of the surgery. The scrub looking at my daughter’s leg explains that there is a risk of infection and a risk that the broken leg will be shorter than the other permanently if this is not fixed soon.

I know most of these things but I have not been able to get help to fix it. Hope has been keeping us going, it is what brought us here today.
I am distracted by actions from the clinic next to ours. A scrub holds an x-ray up to the light and looks at it (photo 9), his movements are fast, he speaks to the patient calmly but he seems to be trying to efficiently figure out the problem. The patient looks lucky to me, at least there are no bones out of place in his x-ray.

We are referred to the mobility clinic and move on. As we wait for our turn I take in the scene, there are a lot of things happening, a pregnant lady in a pretty pink dress disappears behind a curtain under the ultrasound sign (photo 10), an older woman uses her stick to walk across the floor while a scrub watches her movement (photo 11), and another scrub explains how best to sit and change positions in a wheelchair (photo 12). There are also a couple of talkative scrubs with a needle, it looks like they are injecting a patient’s knee (photo 13). The patient visiting the scrub we will see next is a young boy with some sort of metal contraption sticking out of his leg (photo 14). While it looks scary, I wonder if they will be able to fix Ayda’s leg, if they might try something like it for her too.

We visit with the mobility scrub and he authoritatively confirms the urgency and tells us to go to referrals before we leave.

I have an appointment for myself too though, so we go over to the gynaecology clinic. On our way there I hear a scrub chatting to a girl in a yellow shirt, they are happy to find out from the ENT clinic that her son just had something stuck in his ear. The mom has worried for the last eight months that he was deaf in one ear (photo 15).

We pass by the ENT, who has moved on to another patient in the meantime and is flashing a light in a girl’s face to check her throat, I think (photo 16).
I wait my turn for gynecology and observe the scrubs at this clinic (photos 17, 18, and 19). When it is my turn I explain about the pains I have once a month, I am not worried but I want to confirm everything is normal. I am surprised the scrub wants to take me behind the curtain for an exam. She calls over her co-scrub, there is no hesitation to help each other out. At the end she tells me she wants me to go for a check-up at the IVAA Termo clinic. My heart drops, is that the cancer screening? I thought I would just get some medicine to alleviate monthly pain, I was not worried about my own health.

As I turn to leave and move on to the next clinic, I notice a pastor praying with a patient as she waits her turn (photo 20), I say a silent prayer myself.
When I get to the IVAA Termo clinic, I see it is full of women waiting, many of them with their children, it seems to be one of the busiest places (photo 21). The wait this time is more difficult, I try to block out the worry. The woman waiting next to me gives me a look of understanding and starts chatting with my daughter. We are all worried, I feel less alone. After a tense wait and an exam I breathe a sigh of relief, there was nothing to worry about, I am one of the lucky ones.

I come out of the clinic looking for Ayda, she has wandered over to the clinic behind IVAA Termo, audiology. Again, there is a lot going on, a couple of scrubs are inserting hearing aids (photos 22 and 23), and one is explaining to a whole family how to use and care for the gadget (photo 24). It seems some of these people have had bad hearing for a long time, and getting a hearing aid from America is really a blessing, everyone is happy. Relieved about my news, I share in their joy!
Once I update her, the gynaecology scrub is also relieved about the result and glad the test was done to remove any doubts. I am reminded that I have two important stops before we are done for the day, so we head over to referrals. As we walk over I see a scrub consoling a woman (photo 25), she has had a great loss, my heart goes out to her, there are so many ups and downs in this sea of humanity here today.

At referrals I am asked questions and told that, though this team/trip does not do surgery, they are scheduling Ayda for a visit with the surgical team. Once we meet with them they will tell me about the next steps to get it fixed. I explain that I can’t pay but they tell me it is not a problem. I have been trying for so long, I can’t believe this might be it, they might be able to fix my little girl’s leg.

Our last stop is pharmacy, to get our medicine. As we wait, I eavesdrop on a scrub asking a family for their story, the eldest apparently is the great-great grandmother of the youngest (photo 26), she lost her sight three years ago but today she has been told it is cataracts. They will refer her for a simple surgery and she will be able to see again. The scrub seems interested and impressed that the blind woman has shown up with help from three generations of family.

There are a few people at the last couple of clinics, though we don’t stop at the lab, the two nice scrubs there beam at my daughter (photo 27). The pharmacists are quite busy handing out medicine, it looks like every patient comes through here (photos 28 and 29). There is a quick break when they receive “Thank You” balloons (photo 30).

I look at the balloons and that is all I can think, THANK YOU!

I have described some of the events of the week in the form of a story, mostly from a fictional patient’s perspective. Each of the described anecdotes occurred over the course of the week to various visited patients. I have included these as examples for brevity, but be aware that there were over 1500 clinic visits performed in the week, and over 300 referrals for future surgeries/consultations. It was a very fruitful week.

I cannot speak fully to the level of gratitude the patients feel but I know from my conversations with the volunteers how happy they are to have made an impact (photo 31), and how much they are looking forward to the next trip.
Each of the volunteers carry their own burdens, some heavier than others. They willingly set them aside for the week in order to care for strangers. Rarely have I witnessed such empathy.

Let’s also not forget the unsung heroes, to every father that took care of toddlers while his spouse was away volunteering, to every mother that took on the task of driving the tweens to all of their sports’ practices, to every neighbour that looked in on a scrub’s cats, and to every donor that put a dollar towards this mission trip, thank you for making it possible.