Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Project HOPE Volunteers Do What they Do

Sometimes I really wonder why Project HOPE volunteers do what they do.

They trade the comforts of home, benefits of paychecks and the company of loving families for a month or more at a time to live, in this case, on a Navy ship traveling through Latin America, without a salary, sharing every waking moment with a bunch of like-minded strangers. They sleep in small quarters on bunks of beds with eight and sometimes more people in a room. They wake up, sometimes way before the 6:00 a.m. “reveille call” to run up six flights of stairs for a quick breakfast, and “muster” in the wee hours of the morning for transportation to their hot, busy worksites. They eat military rations on site, lather up with sun block to protect against its scorching rays and spray down with DEET to hopefully discourage disease-carrying bugs. At the end of the long day, they return to the ship, hoping to make the evening meal, climb countless more stairs running errands, trying to make time to communicate with friends and family whenever technology allows. And finally, before falling into their tight bunks at 10:00 p.m. “taps,” they feel fortunate to take a short, sometimes cold navy shower in a cramped dark stall.

But then I see the patients. People looking for help, for better health, for hope. They flood into make-shift clinics, wait in long lines for surgery screenings or come to education sites to learn more about their health professions and how to care for patients. Despite the stifling humid heat and the time they must invest to see a doctor, they wait, mostly patiently. Many are holding the hands of their small children, whose young eyes show both a little apprehension and a lot of curiosity at the same time. Some have been in pain for years; others are looking for answers, not sure what ails them or their loved ones.

Today was the first day of patient care, screening and health education in Panama. I attended the surgery screening located on the pier right outside the Comfort. More than 70 of the patients screened today were scheduled for surgeries onboard the Comfort during the next couple of days. Surgeries that might not ever have been possible for these people if it weren’t for the dedicated medical professionals volunteering their time and talents.

Dr. Sharon Weintraub,a general surgeon volunteering for Project HOPE, screened more than a dozen patients herself, including Carlos, a 72 year-old-man, who had been living with a large hernia for a year, making it difficult to walk and get around. “He was the first patient I saw today,” Dr. Weintraub said. “He was very kind and his eyes were soulful. We can really do something to improve his quality of life.” His surgery is scheduled for May 27. (Check back for an update.)

HOPE volunteers Barbara Perdikakis, Cynthia Cappello, Kendra Dilcher and Peggy Holt also worked in the 96 degree humid heat throughout the day to help screen patients.

Whether they were performing initial screenings before sending patients for consultations with general surgeons, gynecologists or pediatric surgeons or confirming that anesthesiology would be safe for the patient or making children feel at ease with stickers and attention, the volunteers’ compassion reminded me of all I needed to know.

It didn’t matter what they had to go through to get this point, or how hot it was outside or the fact that maybe they didn’t have every personal or professional convenience they were used to. The volunteers were using their talents and professional skills to make a real difference in the individual lives of people who needed help. Looking into the eyes of the grateful patients, the mothers, the fathers, the family members of those in pain, and seeing the interaction between them and the volunteers who are so willingly giving their time, suddenly it all made sense.

Thanks for reading.

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