My Amazing Medical Mission
By Tom Wollenhaupt, RN, Emergency Department
I am just back from my amazing medical mission to Haiti with the Be Like Brit organization. This organization was founded by Len and Cherylann Gengel in honor of their daughter, Britney, who was died in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti on her own missionary trip. The nonprofit raised funds and built an orphanage with a clinic to house and support orphaned children.
Working at this orphanage with these children was truly a life-altering experience for me. I did and saw things that will be with me forever.
But I have to mention first that I went down with a group comprised of the family and friends of Brendan Beck, a man who was in the Peace Corp and volunteered on several missionary trips across the globe. He was killed at the Hotel Montana in Haiti during the Earthquake…just like Britney. This group came from all across the country to build a home in Brendan's honor.
The emotional component to this group was overwhelming. In addition to my own personal journey, I got to participate in their journey, to honor their son/brother/friend and watch them build a home for a deserving Haitian couple and their daughter. We shared living quarters, meals, emotions, stories and then on the last day, we shared a visit to the Hotel Montana and the memorial that’s been built for those who were killed.
I feel proud to have met these people, to have learned about Brendan and to have shared in their very personal experience.
My experiences in Haiti will be eternally remembered and treasured. I was nervous to take on this trip, having never done anything like this before in my life. But ever since I became a nurse, I have wanted to do a medical mission somewhere.
When I heard about this particular mission with the Be Like Brit organization, I was very intrigued. After meeting with Greg Ciottone, MD, Emergency Medicine, and his wife Amalia, who have been instrumental in working with Be Like Brit, I was convinced that this was something I wanted to do. Likewise, after talking to Cindy Miers, RN, Emergency Department, who went down two weeks prior to my trip, I felt a bit more at ease. But nothing could adequately prepare me for all that I saw and did.
Driving in from the Port-Au-Prince airport was shocking! I thought that three years and billions of dollars in aid later, Haiti would have been more rebuilt than the country appeared. I learned about the volatile and often corrupt government, the immense poverty, the fact that they have no way of disposing of garbage (which is everywhere), and those who lived in tents and destroyed building sites.
I was amazed! But within all this, the people of Haiti have this resounding energy and sense of purpose. They live in a tent, but get up and walk miles to work every day, or no matter how poor, they all dress up and go to church on Sundays. They sing and pray and have faith that, despite all the heartache that has befallen their country, there is a greater purpose and they will survive.
The children at the orphanage were all alone, but they were happy. In Be Like Brit, they have found a sense of community and family. They laughed, they sang, they danced, they cried. They were amazing in their own right.
I worked in the clinic, doing wellness exams on all the children as well as full physical exams on three new children who arrived that week. Most of the children had been previously living in extremely unsanitary settings, suffering from fungal skin infections or worse.
I had to dig deep into my clinical skills, conduct assessments and treatment knowledge with very little diagnostic support. I had to suture a deep wrist lac incurred by a kitchen worker. I also worked for over an hour attempting to debride a four-by-five inch lower right extremity ulcer filled with eschar. I treated multiple children at every hour of every day for bumps, bruises and fevers – one at 104 – all with limited medications, no blood draws or other diagnostics and limited equipment.
I also spent two days down at the Mission of Hope Clinic serving the general population of the town of Grand Goave. On my first day, members of the United Nations missionary team from Sri Lanka were there. I worked with the doctor, assistants and soldiers to see and treat 80 patients, from ages two months to 84-years-old all in THREE HOURS! It was crazy, but the sense of accomplishment was incredible! The second day, I saw about 30 patients all on my own, without the assistance of any doctors, to assess and "creatively" treat members of the community.
It was emotionally tough for me at times, but I am so proud to have helped out so many people on this trip. It was hard work, but in the end, I am SO happy that I completed it and want to go down again when I can. The program director is amazing – he welcomes each group and makes you feel important and valued. He has committed three years of his life to building this community and making the orphanage a home for the 66 children that will eventually live there (there were 31 children there when I left). I truly feel as though I thrived in this environment – it is the most amazing thing I have ever done.
This program fills your heart and changes your life…for the better! I encourage anyone interested to get involved – www.belikebrit.com.