“Out of many, one.”
I must confess, these projects stress me out a bit. They just do. I remember being taught in junior-high health class that there are both good/productive kinds of stress (eu-stress) and bad/nonproductive kinds of stress (dis-stress). I tend to experience a lot of both of them as we prepare for and begin these projects. Each project seems to bring a unique blend of them – new things will serve as the predominant stressors while others become known quantities, adequately contained by good preparation or experienced volunteers. So what has been stressing me out (in both “good” and “bad” ways) this time? The sheer size of this team. It is by far the largest project team I have ever directed or participated in. We have more doctors (6), more nurses (8, plus 2 retired), more general helpers (12), and more Canadians (14) than ever before. That is a lot of traffic to direct and people to watch out for.
The size of the team had me both excited and anxious for a number of reasons.
- Over half have not been to this particular location before, and about one third of them are on their first medical mission project anywhere, so while I am excited to introduce them all to this wonderful place and share a life-changing experience with them, I stress out about doing so. What if someone gets sick, or bored, or feels underutilized, under-appreciated, or in over their head?
- Much of the team is arriving as part of sub-groups who know each other quite well. Some have served together on particular projects before. Some work together at home and are coming as a group. We have groups of 5 and 7 from Canada who know each other well from home, but have never been to Bolivia before. All these pre-formed groups can be a good thing, jump-starting team unity and preventing people from getting homesick, but it can also degenerate into cliques or factions as the days get long and the work gets stressful. Which would be the case this time?
- The team comes from a broad array of Christian traditions – Baptist, Evangelical Free, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Unity, and even conservative Mennonite (complete with bonnets and dresses at all times). Though all are here to serve the same God together by serving the same people, they could also choose to focus on their differences or withdraw into their own groups. Historically, families and fellowships have been broken and wars have been fought over the differences between these groups. Would it threaten the unity of our team?
- Though our whole team is to serve at the same location for the first two days, we would be splitting into two groups after that. Ultimately, I have to assign people to one group or the other, taking into account their different skill-sets, interests, and their physical ability to tolerate difficult travel (including hiking and crossing rivers that do not necessarily have bridges). I would need to balance the desire to give everyone the experience they want with our need to put together the most effective teams to get the work done well. Would people embrace their assigned roles, or quietly wish I had assigned them elsewhere?
These were the concerns that would sabotage my sleep on the flight from Miami to Santa Cruz (that, and the fact that Star Wars was the in-flight movie). They were the subject of my prayers (and maybe some of yours) as we prepared for the trip and the team kept growing and growing. To this point, I can happily say that all these concerns have been allayed and the prayers have been answered far beyond my satisfaction. This team has been outstanding in every way imaginable.
I will provide a more detailed account of our work below (for those who have not yet fallen asleep), but first must comment on what I have observed from our team; the amazing unity that comes from serving together with one another. At every meal, people are gravitating to sit next to someone new, to learn about their background, their personality, their faith, and to hear the story of how they wound up volunteering for this team. Dozens of such conversations continue on our bus trips and in the pockets of down-time which occasionally occur during the project day. Our Bolivian team members join right in as well. Everyone is learning and laughing a lot. E pluribus unum is alive and well down here in Bolivia.
Jesus speaks a lot about this place called “the Kingdom of God.” It was the first thing he preached about and the thing he preached about most often. He would describe it with metaphors and parables, and made frequent reference to the prophets of old who had foretold of this magical place. It was a place where justice would reign, where the sick and lame would be healed, where peace would replace conflict, and where people would help the weak rather than step on or climb over them. Though these prophets spoke of a place either far away or long in the future, Jesus announced that it was near, or “at-hand.” Though not yet in its fullness, it would be present whenever His people would live together by its ethos. So while our time here may not be quite perfect, I think it’s been pretty close to what this Kingdom must be like (except we still can’t drink the water or flush the toilet paper).
Now, some details on our first week in San Carlos:
We are one week in to our project and we are truly firing on all cylinders. The surgical team has a great mix of experience and adaptability. Pre-project preparation has resulted in very few equipment or supply shortages. We are blessed with some hard working and eager translators (Carlos and Alyssa) who are also aspiring to healthcare careers, so they’ll even scrub in and help when needed. Our team has become quite familiar with the San Carlos OR staff (we love Vasilica and Ignacio), so they have effectively joined our team and even anticipate our needs – we haven’t had to delay a case for instruments even once. We’ve even added on emergency appendectomies and performed anesthesia for a C-section without substantially interrupting the scheduled cases. In all, we performed 38 cases in the first five days, but were only late to dinner once.
Likewise, in our “recovery room”, Linda (second project) and Freddie (4th project) have led a great team including some young practical nurses (RPNs) from Canada in assuring our post-op patients are safe and comfortable throughout their stay. Alyssa (who will be entering nursing school in the fall) has come down from Cochabamba for her second mission with us and has served not just as a translator, but a director of traffic and has championed patient education, making sure our patients can follow their medication instructions and keep their incisions clean and uninfected. Also translating and assisting in the OR, she has shown remarkable endurance through long, hot days and has an amazing ability to multi-task without getting flustered. I plan to write the administration of her nursing school to see if they can grant her breaks to come back and join us. She is truly a badge of honor for her parents.
Outside, our legion of general helpers have found plenty to keep themselves busy. They register patients and guide them to where they need to go. They help in the pharmacy, the eye clinic, the dental clinic, and play with the children next door at a child/ infant nutrition center. They color and play ball with the children while their parents are in surgery or an eye exam. They have organized our supply room and quickly run items to the surgeons who need everything NOW. They are eager to learn new skills and to patiently struggle through the language barrier when a translator is not immediately available. They have truly made everyone feel like a person and not just a task.
Elsewhere, our clinic team has started going to remote/ poorly accessible locations, even crossing rivers in small boats or in monster dump-trucks, reaching people who don’t even have a doctor or nurse they can see once a year. When the lines are long, they stay late to make sure everyone is seen. Having never observed their work directly, I hope to join them for a day next week if everything continues to run so smoothly at the hospital or if we run out of gallbladders to remove or hernias to fix.
Wendy and the girls had a great week, working in the pharmacy and with the children around the hospital and nutrition center. The week flew by faster than they could imagine, and they headed back to Santa Cruz last night and are flying home presently. It was neat to see the girls cautiously come out of their comfort zones in order to engage some lonely children with play and stories. They are so tender-hearted and gravitated towards the kids back in the inpatient area and at the nutrition center where the environment is a bit less chaotic. I enjoyed getting lots of hugs between cases, a luxury I don’t even get at home. Now they’re headed home to be reunited with their friends and their bunnies and head back to school. If this week goes by as quickly as the first, I’ll see them again in no time.