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  Vol. 23, No. 4  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next March 1, 2001 

Medicine on the Move
Volunteers Cross Borders to "Show they Care"

Texas Medical Center News

A HELPING HAND-Physical therapist Kim Ramey (above), and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brad Urquhart (right), help a young patient walk, one step at a time.

This spring, a group of health care professionals from Houston will board a plane to Central America, leaving white coats and scrubs behind in favor of sundresses and guayabera shirts. But instead of vacationing, the group is bound for a week-long marathon of nonstop medical activity.

The diverse team of doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, pharmacists and other medical support personnel will travel to Antigua, Guatemala with the Houston-based group FAITH IN PRACTICE, a nonprofit, volunteer organization that provides much-needed health care services to Guatemala's poor. The group will go for one week, March 10-17, to perform more than 50 surgeries, treat hundreds of dental patients, and dispense antibiotics to cure pneumonia, gastric problems, skin diseases, and a host of other ills. Eight additional groups totaling 360 volunteers from Houston and other U.S. cities will follow throughout the remainder of the year.

A HELPING HAND-Physical therapist Kim Ramey (above), and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brad Urquhart (right), help a young patient walk, one step at a time.

These volunteer health care professionals, many associated with Texas Medical Center hospitals, pay their own expenses (a typical trip costs about $1,000 per person), and give up their accrued vacation time to make the trek. While some may call this "sacrifice," Dr. Gary Card, an ear, nose and throat specialist with Memorial Hermann Hospital who has journeyed to Guatemala nine times with FAITH IN PRACTICE, says the experience benefits him as much as the patients.

"I come away with a feeling of peace that goes beyond understanding. I'm reminded of why I went into medicine in the first place," he explained.

FAITH IN PRACTICE medical volunteers see patients at the 400-year-old Hermano Pedro Hospital for the Poor, a combination hospital, orphanage, home for the aged, and nursing home for the severely disabled. Doctors, dentists and nurses bring from the United States all the supplies they expect to use and as much medication as possible. Contacts in Guatemala are alerted in advance of the team's arrival, and begin spreading the word among the local population. Often, doctors are met by busloads of people extending their arms, raising children high in the air, hoping to receive medical help. Diminutive Mayan women cradling small children stand in the hot sun all day if necessary, patiently waiting for the bus to arrive.

Dr. Becky McGraw Wall has witnessed this scene on her five trips to Guatemala, and labels the opportunity to help "a privilege."

"I'm like the Grinch who stole Christmas. My heart gets bigger and bigger every time I come back," said Dr. McGraw Wall, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon and otolaryngologist with Memorial Hermann Hospital.

The day the health care team arrives, patients are examined, and a surgical schedule is prepared. The remainder of the week is a fast, furious whirlwind of back-to-back surgeries.

Kim Ramey, a physical therapist with Shriners Hospital for Children in Houston who will be making her second trip to Guatemala this spring, compared the work to running a marathon.

"The adrenaline kicks in, and you just go, go, go. The patients uplift you - you don't even realize how busy you are," she said.

While surgeries are under way in one section of the hospital, dental professionals are pulling teeth and filling cavities fifty yards away. In one day, Houston dentist Dr. Ron Hickerson pulled 80 teeth. By week's end, the total was 280.

FAITH IN PRACTICE began nine years ago when Todd Collier, a Princeton University Seminary graduate interning at a Houston church, went to Guatemala to learn Spanish. While there, Collier was struck by the tremendous needs of the poor who came to Hermano Pedro Hospital for help. He returned home and within a year, organized the first FAITH IN PRACTICE team consisting of nine people who made the initial trek to Antigua.

In less than a decade, FAITH IN PRACTICE has grown to nine teams of 360 volunteers, each team making annual week-long trips. The teams perform surgeries in seven specialties: orthopedic, reconstructive, ENT, urology, maxillofacial, gynecology and general surgery.

In addition, family practice medical teams travel to 26 villages high in the mountains, bringing medicines and diagnostic care to people who have little access to physicians. A public health component was introduced in the villages last year to teach simple principles such as the merits of boiling drinking water and washing hands.

FAITH IN PRACTICE-From left: Physical therapist Kim Ramey, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brad Urquhart; medical student Par Khanbolooki , and physical therapist Carol Battaglia travel regularly to Guatemala as part of the volunteer team.

Vera Wiatt, executive director of FAITH IN PRACTICE, says each patient seeking help is "valuable and important," and that by offering care and assistance, team members "express the respect and empathy we hold for the difficulties our patients struggle to overcome."

Every member of the medical team believes in the "unspoken power of deeds," Wiatt said.

"Saying you care is nice," she explained, "but showing you care is even better."

For more information, access http//:www.faithinpractice.org or call (713) 484-5555.

Bridging the Gap

Medical Bridges Inc. is a nonprofit organization that collects and redistributes medical and surgical goods for re-use in developing countries. By functioning as a clearinghouse, the organization recycles equipment and supplies collected from hospitals, clinics, physicians' offices and other facilities, and distributes this material to qualified charitable organizations such as FAITH IN PRACTICE. Participating Texas Medical Center institutions include: Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, The Methodist Healthcare System, St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, Texas Children's Hospital, and The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"The items that are recovered are clean, safe and perfectly usable in other countries. However, because of the regulations handed down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, our own high standards for sterility and our medical-legal environment, their reuse in this country is prohibited," explains Dr. Patricia A. Brock, president and founding board member.

"Also, what is considered obsolete and allowed to gather dust in a hospital storage room here in the United States, is decades ahead of what would otherwise be available to these struggling third world countries."

Medical Bridges' services are free of charge. The only criteria for receiving supplies is that the supplies must be given to patients, not resold. For more information, access http//:www.medicalbridges.com.

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