On a Mission

January 10, 2013

Saint John’s Health Center staff use their vacation time and their own funds to travel thousands of miles to help those most in need.

Robert C. Hamilton, MD
Robert C. Hamilton, MD
Medical personnel at Saint John’s Health Center have all the tools of modern medicine at their fingertips, along with teams of specialists to consult and a pharmacy stocked full of life-saving drugs. So why would some of them choose to use their vacation time to travel – on their own dime – to work in remote parts of the world where even something as basic as clean water may be in short supply?

“I really feel like it’s an opportunity to give back,” says Robert C. Hamilton, MD, a pediatrician at Saint John’s Health Center who has been traveling on medical missions since the early ‘80s. He started by taking several trips to Nicaragua. But he turned his attention to Africa after a missionary friend who had founded a congregation in The Gambia simply told him, “They need you.”

He went on his first medical mission to Africa in 1988 and has been going back every year, sometimes twice a year. Indeed, it became very clear on that first trip that he would have plenty to do there. “I saw that the need in Africa was very great,” Dr. Hamilton says, “and I felt very productive. I also fell in love with the African people.”

Dr. Hamilton has traveled to places such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Benin, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau. Teaming up with other medical specialists, he goes to a location and opens a building such as a church, city hall or courthouse for about a week at a time. Fundraising covers the medicines and other supplies that they ship over, but the doctors and other staff pay for their own travel, food and lodging.

“We open the doors, and thousands of people show up,” Dr. Hamilton says. People come in need of medical care for a range of conditions, from dehydration and diarrhea to pneumonia, malaria and heart problems. Many volunteers on their first medical missions are shocked by the great need for medical care.

Irene Bristol, director of major gifts at the Health Center, joined Dr. Hamilton's team on a 2011 trip to Africa along with co-worker, Kim Rosenberg, RN, who was an integral member of the team. Bristol is a registered nurse who spent many years in patient care before joining the Foundation staff.

Members of a Burmese hill tribe try on glasses at a makeshift pharmacy.
She recalls arriving in the remote village of Kabala in Sierra Leone after a long bus ride on dirt roads. The village had been battered by the region’s civil war. The missionary team set up mosquito tents at the compound where they would sleep. Then they went to a communal building that served as a church at night to prepare for the opening of the week-long clinic the next day. Saint John’s Health Center donates many of the medicines and medical supplies for the missions.

“People had already started lining up,” Bristol recalls. “Some had started walking to reach the clinic seven or eight days prior to our arrival.” Many patients were mothers carrying babies on their backs. Some of the women limped due to paralysis from polio infections.

The clinic staff treated hundreds of patients that week. Many patients had waterborne diseases or infections and required antibiotics or wound care. Some of the mothers gripped their chests, as if they were experiencing chest pain. After a few days, the healthcare team recognized that these women were suffering from intense stress. Oftentimes giving patients a Tylenol and just talking to them would relax and comfort them.

Missionary staffers distributed clothes, shoes and toiletries. Many returned home with empty suitcases, having given away all but the clothes they were wearing. In the evening, the missionary staff returned to the communal building to pray with the villagers.

“There were still so many people in line when we left,” Bristol says. “That was the hardest part – you want to help them all. We knew there were so many more we could have helped.”

While most of the care given by doctors on medical missions is provided in the field, sometimes patients are transported to hospitals for major procedures. Both Dr. Hamilton and another Health Center pediatrician, Marna L. Geisler, MD, have helped children get surgeries that have dramatically improved their lives – or ultimately saved them.

Dr. Geisler has been going on medical missions since 1989. Initially she took a trip with Dr. Hamilton and then began organizing trips of her own to Burma after traveling to Thailand with a friend and learning about the great need of hill tribes there. She’s also gone on medical missions to Honduras, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

Working with the Myanmar Compassion Project and the Student Action Volunteer Effort, Dr. Geisler travels annually to the area and spends the bulk of her time caring for basic health problems and prescribing vitamins and pain medications. Because of a lack of vitamin A, night blindness is a big problem among children there.

But on a trip two years ago, Dr. Geisler met a 9-month-old boy in a remote fishing village who had a heart murmur and two leaky valves. He needed open-heart surgery to survive.

Through the Myanmar Compassion Project, which has a clinic in Yangon, Dr. Geisler arranged for the boy to be transported there and undergo the necessary operation. “He probably wouldn’t have lived past his second birthday without this surgery,” she says.

Dr. Marna Geisler
Dr. Marna Geisler treats a child in the Akha hill tribe near Kyaingtong, Burma.
In another case, Dr. Geisler saw a 4-year-old boy who was born with a bowel obstruction and had a colostomy bag that prolapsed, leaving his intestinal wall exposed. Because of concerns that the abdominal area would get dirty and develop infections, the little boy wasn’t allowed to play outside.

His parents had no money for the surgery, so Dr. Geisler and her group arranged for the boy to be transported for surgery. She remembers feeling elated when she got an email message from the boy’s nurse that read that he now had a functional bowel.

Dr. Hamilton, too, has helped children with serious heart defects get the critical surgery they needed. About a year ago, he worked with an organization in London to arrange for a girl from Guinea who had a cardiac defect, known as Tetralogy of Fallot, to be transported there for the life-saving surgery.

Still, healthcare providers on medical missions are painfully aware that they can’t help everyone. “There’s a lot of sadness and hopelessness in Africa,” says Dr. Hamilton. “You see life in the raw and on the edge. We’re there for a short time, and you just can’t cure every illness.”

But he and his colleagues do what they can, as often as they can. “We know we can’t fix everything, and that’s very frustrating,” says Dr. Geisler. “But for the kids with ruptured eardrums or abscesses or headaches, we can help, and that’s so rewarding. And then when you get home, you think, ‘We really are blessed.’”