WHAT I DO AND WHY I DO IT
(My mission in Guatemala and Milwaukee)
A few years ago, I had an epiphany. A “What’s it all about Alfie?” moment where I began to really ask myself, “What more can I do?” cloaked in the fear of “Is this all there is?”
As a board-certified OB/GYN for over 25 years, I became interested in lending my support, my energy and medical skill and ultimately my heart toward some of the most marginalized women in the world. Abruptly, in 2015, a friend presented an opportunity- Want to go to Guatemala and develop a Women-specific Healthcare Mission? I heard myself say “Yes!” immediately, and then began to fret about whether I was up to the daunting task of providing clinical and surgical care to some of the most impoverished and isolated women in all of Central America and in a very rudimentary surgical setting- truly bush-league obstetrics and gynecology. I was told, for example, the “clinic/hospital” in San Raymundo, Guatemala had three ORs. In truth, they had one medium-sized room, with three OR tables and one long table of surgical instruments to select from for each case. Patients were escorted to their respective table for surgery, often walking past a patient already asleep and undergoing surgery on the table next to hers.
As is completely typical of me, I looked for ways to prepare for my Guatemala experience closer to home and accepted a part-time position as an OB Hospitalist working in downtown Milwaukee at Sinai Medical Center where there is a sobering view of the Milwaukee Court House and Jail from the front entrance. If Guatemala was going to be bush-league, Milwaukee would prep me for wartime. I worked my days off and the occasional weekend, keeping the job I love in Madison with my group, Melius, Schurr & Cardwell. In Milwaukee I encountered malignant hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes, heroin addiction, domestic violence and life-threatening hemorrhage and that was just the first day. My learning curve was steep and the adrenaline junkie in me thrived. Some nights I would return home to Madison silent, emotionally and physically destroyed; other nights, full of a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Milwaukee had prepared me well for my initial Guatemala Mission in April 2016 . Good or bad, however, I cannot give Milwaukee up. Four years from my initial shift, I continue to serve there. It fills my cup. It has made me a better physician and an even better human being.
My first mission to Guatemala with Refuge International in 2016 will always reserve a special spot in my heart. It is where the “big beginning” occurred for me. Exciting, frightening, humorous, maddening, but also so very kind and loving. It is where my faith in humanity and God grew and Grace abounded. I am forever changed. I was struck by the harshness of living in San Raymundo; a small town in the highlands of Guatemala, about an hour north of Guatemala City. Children who attended a small school immediately adjacent to the medical compound were beautiful, dark-eyed and energetic; a stark and sharp contrast to the women I met and cared for in the clinic. Even at the age of 18, my patients appeared worn, exhausted and aged, their petite frames depleted by poverty, disease and the physical impact of multiple pregnancies and poor care. I returned in 2017 and this time with a larger cadre of Madisonians; some from my office, some from Meriter who had heard my story and were looking to help.
See the video of that Mission: https://youtu.be/5zr7bqoHcl4
This time, in addition to providing clinical and surgical care to women, our group of talented and compassionate professionals held an impromptu dental clinic for women suffering from dental disease, managed sepsis, keeping an all-night vigil on an elderly woman and cared for a local father whose orthopedic injury would not heal without daily surgical intervention. I treated infections, bleeding and pain. I operated on prolapse, masses and abscesses. As a gynecologist, I was challenged to make the right decision, every time, as I recognized these patients had no other alternatives. I was struck by their level of trust in me, despite the fact that we did not speak the same language and had only met less than an hour before. My compassion grew. All who traveled with me to San Raymundo left changed, the bond between us sealed tightly, much like those who fight alongside each other in combat.
Each time upon my return to the US, I gain new perspectives on the simple things in life outside of medicine that I, all too commonly, take for granted: air-conditioning, a clean shower and soap, ice in my drink, an entire row of cereal at the super-Target. The list goes on and on. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective.
The purpose of life is not to be happy.
It is be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate,
To have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson