Mission Possible

Thoughts from a medical mission – better to give than receive.
I’ve just returned from volunteering on a medical mission in Colombia. It has been several years since I was there and many changes have taken place since that time. The city is much safer with much less need for continuous security protection. The hospital is now affiliated with a university and the facilities are more advanced. And the hospital-based physicians are much better educated and trained as compared to some of the other locations at which we have volunteered.

In addition to a fabulous group of talented, dedicated and giving individuals, I was lucky enough to be joined on this mission by my daughter and my wife. My daughter is an experienced volunteer although this was her first medical mission. She has been volunteering in Israel on the ambulance service after being certified as a First Responder. She was able to help play with our pediatric patients, assist in bandaging and act as a circulator in the operating room getting supplies and instruments for the surgical techs. She was also able to assist me in inserting iv catheters and managing airways during surgery; quite an experience for a young middle-class American teen. She rose to the occasion and was able to focus on the extensive needs of many extremely poor people.

My wife has participated in medical missions in the past. While her background is in psychology and personnel management, on the missions, she becomes a patient transporter, instrument sterilizer, and organizer of medical records. On this particular mission, she was also able to lend much-needed support assisting in the operating room as a circulator.

While one of our other daughters was not able to be there physically, she was able to help by organizing and collecting a stuffed animal drive as a project for her Bat Mitzvah. We brought these stuffed animals with us to give away to the children in the hospital.

On our first day in the operating room, my wife realized that her backpack was missing. Rather than spending time looking for it she continued to work. Later in the day, the backpack surprisingly returned to where she had left it, however, there were several missing items, including some vitamins. It was then that she casually mentioned that it had previously disappeared. When I asked her about what was missing and why she didn’t mention it earlier, she explained that she had volunteered to join us on the mission to help people in need. Obviously, whomever took the vitamins and other items from her backpack were more in need of these things than was she. She could choose to be upset and look for someone to blame for the missing things or she could open her heart further to help those who were less fortunate than herself. One path was filled withanger and resentment: hardly conducive to helping behavior. The other path leads to heartfelt empathy and a sincere altruistism without blame. The first path occupies your time with frustration and the second path with love. My wife explained that the first path was negative and would not only drain her energy but that of everyone else on the mission as well. She chose the positive path which was energizing.

The next day, all of the stuffed animals that we had brought with us to give away were found to be missing. Using my wife’s reasoning, my daughter told us that we should probably assume that the toys had found a good home with children who really needed them. She said that if there was something she thought she could do about it, then she would try to correct the situation. However, being in a foreign country and culture, and on a medical mission for those in need, the situation did not call for a thorough investigation. And simply complainng about it would be non-productive and potentially damaging for the goodwill of the mission. So, like my wife, she took the path of positivity and happiness.

The rest of the mission went extremely well and no other items (that I know of) were missing. We performed many surgeries, treated many patients and made many friends. The overwhelming emotions were positive and we felt that we had done some good. The patients were grateful for our help and we were grateful for the opportunity.

One could argue that my wife and daughter did not stand up for themselves when their things were stolen; they didn’t even attempt to find out who was responsible for the crimes. My wife and daughter would argue that the greater good was served by coming up with reasonable explanations of what happened and giving the benefit of doubt, rather than complaining and blaming. I would agree.

That being said, I’m not advocating or condoning the acceptance of bad, immoral, or unethical behavior. If you believe that your actions will help improve or correct conditions that you feel need to be changed, then you are obligated to do so. For example, my wife suggested bringing combination locks on the next mission, if only to ensure that the specific items brought for certain individuals are indeed kept safe until distribution. If however, your actions will be limited to mindless and toxic complaining, follow my wife and daughter’s examples and move beyond blaming. You’ll feel better and so will others with whom you interact. It’s precisely this type of thinking that makes a third world medical mission possible.