My Very First Medical Mission 8 Years Ago

I'm going to spend this month, also my birthday month, to self indulge in the things I care most about. Since I am not one to enjoy receiving gifts as I am giving, I will share with you a non-refundable gift of a story about one of my dreams and passion.

I most enjoy being able to give things to people, which it should be no surprise as to why I am a doctor after all. This particular trait also explains why I am so fixated on doing/going/planning for medical missions. Watch out! I have a bunch of knowledge to give away! And why not? Well, it goes two ways actually. On the one hand I am giving away my services, time, talent and energy to others, whether it be here in the good 'ol U.S. of A or abroad. On the other, I am gaining so much more, I think. I learn about different people, cultures, beliefs and get a reality check that, in fact, we are all pretty much the same. We are human and deserve the touch of humanity. 

Eight years ago I had the opportunity to travel for my first medial mission trip to El Salvador and provide medical aid to the Salvadorian people. I have traveled internationally before for vacations but never for work. I was just an itty bitty medical student at the time and eager as a beaver to see things and do things. I had even been taking medical Spanish classes exactly for this! Sí! muy emocionado (very excited!)

We flew from Iowa to Texas awaiting a layover. The group of us were hambriento (hungry) and rented a car to get some grub. Once finished, we walked out to find broken glass from our rental car and missing bags. Our car was broken into and one of the gals had her passport taken as well. What a start.

A picture of a picture so the quality is quite poor. But our hearts were rich (and a bit tachycardic) and here we are just landed in El Salvador, 2009.

A picture of a picture so the quality is quite poor. But our hearts were rich (and a bit tachycardic) and here we are just landed in El Salvador, 2009.

We eventually made it to El Salvador in one piece. We ate, got some rest, were given a briefing about the local culture. What I remember from our hacienda was that running water was more like dripping water and it was timed so you took a quick cold shower so that your roomies can wash up too. And maybe the drain didn't really drain. Don't bother putting on makeup or getting your hair fancy. This was not a place for vanity. Drinking the faucet water was also not encouraged. 

We had several successful days seeing many families and giving out bandages, vitamins, performing history and physicals and the like. Everyone was grateful and many traveled distances for the free clinic. A lot of the locals were intrigued by our blue eyed blond hair colleagues, it was the most entertaining thing they saw. I blended in just fine with my brown eyes and brown hair. 

Things were going great. Some things were quite a shock, like the empty buildings with the bullet holes, while other parts were very Americanized like advertisements for pop/sodas, fast foods, and those American things. 

One time I even found a dead spider in a young boy's ear! True story.

One time I even found a dead spider in a young boy's ear! True story.

I believe on the second or third day of clinic our anticipated clinic location was moved for one reason or another. Thinking nothing of it, we did the usual, setting up tables and chairs, saw each and everyone who showed up. I probably mangled the Spanish language, (lo siento) and decided to communicate via the pointing technique. 

A few hours into clinic, we all heard a "pop-pop" then "pop-pop-pop-pop-pop," a total of 21 gunshots went off. Everyone scattered, many pushing down tables to create barricades. Mothers and children were screaming while the staff tried to herd everyone to a safe place and taking cover ourselves. I carried a small hysterically crying child to his mother and then ducked under a table. I had my point and shoot camera in one hand trembling with the other trying to turn it off so that it didn't make any sudden noise. I scanned the room eyeing the open door watching a male figure in black uniform pacing back and forth with the rifle by his side. I had no idea who that was, what side he's on or what just happened. I crouched under the table nearly paralyzed trying to stay quiet. I think I was breathing but I can't be sure. 

I remember thinking, should I take pictures? Should I document the last days of my life? What if they catch me with the evidence? Are they here because they think these American doctors have drugs? What would I say if they asked? 

I don't know how long it was before it was cleared but needless to say we were all frazzled. We finally learned that there was dead man (maybe in his twenties) in front shot at point blank in the head and a small child at the nearby school struck by a stray bullet. It was a gang-related fight of retaliation. My heart was heavy that day. This is what the people of El Salvador live through everyday. Violence runs the city. El Salvador is still considered to be the Murder Capital of the world and has a murder rate 22 times that of America. But they also need medical care. 

At the end of the day, we had a meeting and debated whether or not to continue the mission. Half of the group was very vocal about staying while the other half said we should leave. And all of a sudden tears were streaming down my face. I was pissed. I was pissed that we were even debating and downplaying the trauma. I was pissed that we couldn't do more. I was pissed for being pissed. These emotions were unexpected and that's when I realized I was truly naive about what was to be expected on these trips. 

A young El Salvadorian girl carrying cashew fruit. Hustling can start at any age. 

A young El Salvadorian girl carrying cashew fruit. Hustling can start at any age. 

Instead of a weeklong international medical mission trip, it was cut short to just a few days. Everyone on our team was safe, but some took home traveler's remorse like myself. I felt awful for the things I took for granted, like my safety, running water and material things. While there were others who were more experienced in dealing with traveler's remorse. You just kind of just push it down, ride the wave and learn to appreciate all that you have. Counselors were offered but I kindly declined it. I felt I needed to deal with these feelings and sort it out myself.

There were so many beautiful parts of El Salvador, the coffee, the dedicated families, their food, the beautiful children and things they made. And the broken parts that is beyond any one person or small group to fix. 

La Clinica in San Salvador, El Salvador

La Clinica in San Salvador, El Salvador

So you're probably asking, would you recommend medical missions after all that?

I don't think it's for the faint of heart. You have to really know what you're getting into, what the goals are, what your resources are, what the backup plan is and a safety get-out plan. You may be going to just explore new land, offer your services, collecting some memorable pictures and calling it a day. There's really nothing wrong with that. Many people have gone and never dealt with anything traumatic. Some others may have had a way worse experience. 

Essentially, it's your own judgement call but I know this is something I will continue to build on. My deepest passion is to share my knowledge on wound care, amputation prevention and correcting foot and ankle deformities so people can just live without pain or a cumbersome wound or a deformity limiting their ability to make income. I have since been to San Miguel, Mexico with a few more trips planned and brewing for the next few years so stay tuned! Ultimately, the big goal is to spread awareness of what services podiatrists have to offer since we are still such a small profession and create sustainable clinics all over the world where it's needed. Naive? Probably. Committed? Yes. 

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain
Adiós!

Adiós!