A team of U.S. medical students examines a 6-year-old girl in a mountain community outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She is breathing hard. She can barely walk or talk. She has a remarkable heart murmur. And she’s blue.
The child, Daisy, has a heart abnormality in which the oxygenated blood on one side of her heart is mixing with the venous blood on the other side. Had she had prior access to medical care, her condition might not have become so severe.
Of the 1.9 billion children in the developing world, UNICEF reports one in seven doesn’t have access to health services.
Accessing Health Care
An example of what U.S. medical workers face when they provide charitable care in developing countries, Daisy was treated by a team of physicians and medical students on an annual mission trip to Tegucigalpa. They are led by Robert B. McGinley, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at The Orthopaedic Group in Mobile, AL, an adjunct professor at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and co-founder of the Christian Medical Ministry of South Alabama.
After seeing Daisy, Dr. McGinley spoke with a physician at Tegucigalpa’s pediatric hospital, who made arrangements for her to see another U.S. medical team. Since then, Daisy has had one surgery and will have another that should correct her condition — and save her life.
In developing countries, medical volunteers have to be resourceful, and they have to be prepared to address issues unlike anything they see at home.
“This may be the only opportunity these children get to see a doctor,” Dr. McGinley says. “Some have access to basic health care through schools, but there’s no national health care so they just have to get what they can wherever they can.”
A Breakdown in Infrastructure
Medical volunteers also encounter communities with a lack of basic necessities.
“As in most developing countries, there is a primary need for safe drinking water,” says Dr. McGinley, whose team can only treat the symptoms of severe diarrhea — not the root causes — that arise from unsanitary water.
“You can come in and put a Band-Aid on it, but unless you address the underlying challenges, it’s nothing more than a Band-Aid,” Dr. McGinley says.
Bridging the Language Gap
A less dramatic — but just as critical — challenge is bridging the language barrier that volunteers encounter. In Honduras, the national language is Spanish.
“Most of our students don’t speak Spanish, so we have translators,” Dr. McGinley says. “They may be children of the people who volunteer at the churches. Often Honduran medical students will come help us translate.”
Dr. McGinley and his colleagues return home with skills sharpened from training Honduran surgeons repeatedly in orthopedic procedures. The students return with diagnostic skills that come only from seeing 100 patients a day.
The challenges are hard, but the rewards are great, Dr. McGinley says.
“Everyone involved in a ministry like this will come away saying there are more blessings for them than they can ever imagine anyone else getting,” he concludes.