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Health First in El Salvador

Health First in El Salvador

Written by Tricia Gordon, Director, Medical Outreach Program, Americares

I love my job. On a daily basis I get to help talented, generous medical professionals who travel around the world to improve health to those in need.  The medical outreach teams we support with free medicines and supplies truly embody Americares emphasis on “health first” and reflect our mission to save lives and improve the health of people affected by poverty or disaster.  Upon a team’s return, I have the pleasure of reading their success stories of how the donated products helped patients in need.

This past January I was given the opportunity to travel with Dr. Usama Hamdan and his team through Global Smile Foundation to El Salvador where they performed cleft lip and palate surgeries on 29 children.  At first I was reluctant and told myself that I had too many personal and work obligations that would keep me from going.  However, after some much needed prodding and being tasked with the responsibility of helping develop a media piece, I decided to go.

I thought I understood the impact of these trips. I’ve been reading teams’ field reports and viewing their photos and videos for 13 years now.  I know these teams do incredible work, seen the before and after pictures from surgical teams and I’ve read incredible stories of compassion and love. That’s it, right?  Not even close.  What I witnessed was so much more.

I noticed a tremendous sense of comradery.  Seasoned members worked with newcomers and very quickly everyone became a family.  I had the opportunity to meet some of the team at the pre-trip preparation meeting where Dr. Hamdan ran through the itinerary for the upcoming week and fielded questions from the team.  It was great to see the Americares donated medicines and pulse oximeters included in the final packing.

I arrived in El Salvador with two colleagues who were tasked with interviewing and filming the trip.  We arrived on a Friday and bright and early Saturday we boarded a bus with the team. We headed to the treatment center to unpack all of the medicines and supplies.  The team worked like a well-oiled machine.  They knew exactly what needed to be done and where products should be stored for easy access. By late afternoon, there were two operating rooms ready for patients. Sunday was screening day and it was time to meet the children.  Fifty-seven were screened but only twenty-nine were approved for surgery.  The lucky ones.  There would still be an opportunity for the others during a future mission, but tears were shed nonetheless.

Monday was Surgery Day 1, the day I had been waiting for.  Two babies at a time were brought into the waiting area, each with their parents, usually the mothers.  The stress on the parents’ faces said it all and the tears that were shed as the children were handed to the team struck something in me.  Is it because I’m a mom? Doubtful, it’s a human thing.  These women are literally putting the lives of their children in the hands of strangers. Strangers from another country who rely on translators as their mouthpieces. They trusted the team. They’ve heard from others that the US team is the “best.”  Many are here for follow-up surgeries and feel that giving their children to these American health professionals is for the best, but it doesn’t relieve the stress or prevent the tears of anxiety.  Nor should it.  Now they wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Eventually through the double doors, a familiar face in scrubs appears with their baby.  All done.  There are stitches, there is swelling, but the transformation is apparent in an instant.  One mother’s statement, “His nose is so cute” can only be understood when you realize that because of his cleft, the baby’s nose was not defined. His mother never saw his nose before.  “His nose is so cute” means so much.  The surgery is life changing.  These children and their families will be able to go to school and participate in their communities without being ostracized.

The overwhelming relief on the faces of the parents cannot be explained.  You have to see it, and when you see it, you feel it.

When I returned home, I felt energized, ready to get to work. I felt proud.  Am I the surgeon who performed these surgeries?  No. Am I the nurse who provided post op care on these babies?  No.  But I did what I could.  As Evelyn, the head Administrator of the team said to me, “We all do our part.” She was right. No one person can do it all and we each do our part. Teamwork.  Pharmaceutical donors, Americares staff, Global Smile administrators, anesthesiologists, nurses, surgeons, high school student translators, parents.  We are all one big team.  Together, children’s lives were changed for the better.  There was so much to smile about.

I am so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to witness the incredible work of one of so many of the teams we support.  The Americares Medical Outreach Program supports over a thousand trips per year.  Last year, over 775,000 patients were seen including nearly 48,000 surgeries performed through these teams.  The generosity of these teams never ceases to amaze me.  People leave their jobs, use vacation time and sacrifice time away from their families.  Why?  Just ask them.  It won’t come as a surprise.  These are generous people who want to give back.  They want to help those in need.  They want to make a difference.

To all of our Medical Outreach Partners, thank you for all you do.

Your contribution to those in need is overwhelming.

Your part in putting Health First has not gone unnoticed.

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