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Monthly Archives: April 2015

Pete’s Pearl

We’ve kept quite a pace down here.  If you’ve followed our posts on Facebook, you will have seen that the first week team performed 40 procedures last week – quite impressive considering the small team size and only having one anesthetist capable of doing general anesthesia.  Dr. Obregon and Dr. Kaufman were great to have along – such servants, willing to see most the consults while I got to operate and take the lead on most the major cases.  It was a true honor to have Pete (Dr. Obregon) back on one of my projects.  Before I get into the details about our second week, I’d like tell you a bit more about Pete and all he has meant to me as a person and as a surgeon.

I went to church with Dr. Obregon since I was a boy.  I knew he was a doctor and that he did some missionary work, specifically in his home town in the Philippines.  As he got older and his children had grown, Pete started going on more and more mission projects in more and more different countries.  I would occasionally watch his slide presentations at church – they were both inspiring and kind of gross.  I never seriously entertained following in his footsteps.  When I was a sophomore in college, Pete invited me and my family to go help one one of his projects in northern Thailand.  We combined it with a family trip to visit my mom’s long-time pen pal in Myanmar (Burma).  The project was mostly primary care medicine in remote mountain villages, but Pete trained me to take vital signs, triage patients, and let me watch some minor surgical procedures.  Seeing God work through him in such an intimate way on so many diverse people was truly eye opening.  For the first time I considered that a career in medicine, specifically surgery, might be worth all the years of training and mounds of debt that it would require.  Pictures of the patients from that project would serve as my motivation on many late nights of study through college and medical school.  So I can credit Pete with helping to determine my career.

Over the next decade, I would travel with Pete to the Dominican Republic, Outer Mongolia, and Rwanda.  He also encouraged me on other missions to Haiti and the Philippines, even though he was preparing for other projects elsewhere.  It was on that trip to the Dominican where Wendy first considered that I might be worth dating, quirks, flaws, and pale complexion notwithstanding.  So I can credit Pete with helping me find my wife as well.

In 2010, out of surgical residencey and a couple years into my career, things lined up for me to go on a little one-week project in Bolivia.  Pete was directing and I wanted to serve with him again.  He was 78 years old at this point, still going quite strong.  We had a great week in Santa Rosa with a great Bolivian team.  It was there that Pete suggested I start directing projects rather than just participating.  The next year, an illness would prevent him from directing that project and my hand was forced to step up.  Taking teams to Bolivia is now a huge part of my identity.  For this, I can also thank Pete.  Four years and six projects later, he came back to serve on my team, content to serve under my leadership and do whatever was asked to help the project be a success.

Lest you think this is slowing the man down, I should mention that Pete is still directing projects on two or three continents a year.   He is actively recruiting a team to operate on a houseboat on the Amazon next spring.  What else is one supposed to do for spring break at the age of 83?  He is the happiest man I have ever met.  Though he takes a few more naps than he used to, he is still tireless in his service to the world’s poorest.  He has done thousands of operations in over 80 countries over the past 30 years.  He has sold most his earthly goods to do so.   He has found the pearl of great price (spoken of in Matthew 13:45-46) and has selflessly shared it  with me and many others.   I don’t think I could ever thank him enough.  But maybe the most fitting thanks I can give is to cultivate that pearl and share it with others.  Thanks, Pete.

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Posted by on April 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The details you asked for (and some that you didn’t)

I wish I had more energy to blog.  So many things to report, though to many it may not seem much different than previous years’ updates.  We are back in San Carlos, Bollivia (this makes three Aprils in a row) and have found no shortage of gallbladders to remove and hernias to fix.  These procedures should probably have been done two years ago, but apparently at the time we were too busy working on the operations that should have been done four years ago.  I doubt we will ever catch up.  The people here work hard and eat cheese.  Not too different from home, I guess.

For those of you following our progress, here are some of the details you have wanted (and some that you may not have wanted).

  • Customs is always a challenge. Even though everything we are bringing is legal and approved in advance, this information does not necessarily trickle down to the customs official working that day.  The sheer amount of supplies we packed this time was a huge red flag.  I feared the worst.  Also, what was once a very quick, smooth process for obtaining visas turned out to be a painstaking, slow experience  – we were at the end of a single-file line.  In the end, it took two hours for the team to get visas.  God works in amazing ways however, and by the time we cleared immigration, the customs officials were late for siesta and let everything through after a fairly cursory baggage inspection.  No surgical supplies, equipment, medication, or feminine hygiene products were seized.  We are now praying He works the same magic for the planeload of gynecologists arriving Saturday.
  • The team has gelled quite well. Camaraderie is good and morale is high after two and a half long-hard days.  The team hails from the US (5 states), Canada, Puerto Rico (yes, I know that is part of the US, but so is Guam), and three cities in Bolivia.  Smiles and laughter abound.  Don’t feel bad for us.  I doubt we could be having much more fun doing anything else.
  • To date (2 days in), we have removed 4 gallbladders, fixed seven hernias, fixed a penis, removed a cyst, and we found the missing testicle. All but three patients have already left the hospital, most of them on motorcycles (yes, even the groin hernia patients).
  • No one has gotten sick so far.
  • The team has collectively ordered over 30kg (66lbs) of coffee from the nearby plantation to bring home with them. These are my kind of people!
  • The hotel has an adjacent nature preserve. The fence is rusted and looks like it is from Jurassic park.  The gate is stuck open.  We hiked around and saw spiders the size of my hand.  There are some tapirs that come out and frequent the pool.  There is even a crocodile.  Did I mention that the gate is stuck open?
  • It is 10:30pm. Our Bolivian team members just started swimming.  Did I mention we bought 66 pounds of coffee

For pictures, it’s best to check out my facebook feed.  They are much easier to post there than to the blog site.  Hoping for another update later this week, but we are already have a fully booked schedule and always anticipate some “uno mas” add-on cases, so blogging time may be sparse.  Plus, I may just go for a swim instead (but not with the crocodile).

Hasta Manana, folks.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The most wonderful time of the year

I can’t lie to you.  I’m excited.  It has been just about a year since we were last in Bolivia – longer than I expected to be away from my brothers and sisters south of the equator.  [Circumstances at work prevented me from helping out in Santa Rosa last November.  Much thanks to Dr. Stanton Smith for directing the project on rather short notice.]  We put the time to good use.  At the advice of my friend and mentor, Dr. Pedro Obregon, I managed to start up Send Health inc, an IRS-approved 501(c)3 nonprofit aimed at raising support for supplies and equipment, but mostly to assist other healthcare workers who are willing to serve abroad in this capacity.  That investment has paid off (thanks to numerous generous donors) and has substantially funded three of our volunteers (two nurses and one nurse-anesthetist) who have made this project possible.  Our cup runs over.

It is now just five days before we board the plane and fly southeast to the lowland planes of central Bolivia.  It will be fall there, tail end of the rainy season, still steamy during the day, but hopefully cooler through the long nights.  I have many things to be thankful for.  At present count, 27 volunteers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Canada will join with the MMI Bolivia team (probably around 10 of them) for either one or two weeks.  Between us, we have collected over 1000 pounds of donated surgical, dental, and medical supplies – everyone from hospitals, clinics, dentists, orthodontists, elementary schools, cub scouts, girl scouts, individual doctors and nurses, and other private donors have given supplies or donated money to purchase needed items.  In short, we are going to be TSA’s worst nightmare.  (If they want to do any invasive searches, we can even provide the equipment!).

While we have much to be thankful for, we are, as always, still in need of your prayers.  There are relatively new customs officials in Bolivia and the MMI team there is working to establish a good relationship with them.  While everything we are bringing is legal and declared in advance, the sheer amount of supplies and equipment we carry will make us a target for intense scrutiny and possible seizure of our luggage if there are misunderstandings as to our intent (charity vs. import).  This can get laughably frustrating (if you don’t believe me, read here:  www.noroomforcream.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/a-day-under-the-belt/ ), but the impact on our work could be substantial depending on what strikes the fancy of the customs official du jour.  Your prayers around 7:00am Central/ 8:00am Eastern time on Saturday, April 11th would be much appreciated.

I will try and post project updates every few days.  The hospital does not have internet access (at least it didn’t last year), but word has it our hotel has internet, albeit of limited bandwidth.   Sometimes however our hotel reservations get changed, rendering this blog futile.  When I update, I will link to facebook, linked-in, and http://www.sendhealth.org.

Thanks again for everyone’s encouragement and support.  It is one thing to put my own meager efforts towards a project like this.  It is quite another to have so many other people jump on board with such enthusiasm and generosity.  I could (and probably should) spend most my down-time just writing thank-you letters to all of you.

-Matt

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in Uncategorized