5 Things To Know About Medical Mission Trips

September 26th, 2011

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By , BSN, RN

One week from today we will be opening the doors to the OR, Family Practice and Eye Clinics of the Midwest Medical Missions' annual October trip. The Hospital Dr. Leopolodo Pou in Samana, DR is a small, fairly typical third world hospital. Open walkways, crowds of people waiting for services, the occasional chicken or crow in the waiting area. The hospital is a place to gather, gossip, and get taken care of by the local healthcare providers or visiting docs and nurses.

This is not my first medical mission trip nor is it the only country in which I have volunteered. I've learned that there are some basic rules to being part of a medical mission group. In order for the trip to be successful from the perspective of providing care and having a great experience, here are five guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Anything you think you will need you need to bring with you.You should provide your own appropriate clothing for work, any tools or instruments you need to do your job, and personal protective gear (all your own gloves, masks, shoe covers, and hats). You need to bring all your own supplies and medications. Now, this collection of goods may be handled by the administrators of the mission trip or you may be expected to collect all your own gear. Either way, the point is to not stress the hospital or clinic in which you are working. If your services are there, they are likely already stretched to their limits and cannot supply you.
  2. Be prepared to jury rig. Unlike most US hospitals, you don't have every tool or supply you need when you do mission work. Or, you have everything you need on day one, but by day five you have run out — out of bandages, out of medications, out of cleaning supplies for your instruments. You'll need to find alternatives that are safe and locally available. When a physician says he has to have a specific suture, you offer what you have that is close. It will work and it will be fine. Use a scarf to make a sling; a PVC pipe and a broom handle can turn into a prosthetic leg — put your imagination to work. Thinking outside the box is mandatory.
  3. Show obvious respect for other cultures. Show interest in what's going on in the host country. Research before you travel. Read travel guides, search online, talk to people who have visited or worked there before. When you arrive, ask questions about native music, customs, history, and even politics. Be sensitive to how the local people feel about the United States. In many countries being from the US is respected but never make your hosts feel that their own country is somehow less. They will respect you more when you show interest in their way of life.
  4. Attempt to speak the language. Even if it is a dreadful attempt, you will not be looked down upon and you will even more likely be appreciated. This is a common misconception — that if you can't do it right, don’t do it at all. In most areas of the world, trying to speak the local language earns you respect. You will most often find people will be very patient with you, who will try to help and usually even attempt a little English in return. One hint, if the adults are getting worn out from coaching you, ask for help from children. Their simpler vocabulary may actually be easier for you.
  5. Try new things. Eat the local food, dance the local dance, sing the local song and step outside your comfort zone. Try exotic fruits, go to the marina and buy from the fishermen, drink something other than Coke. You won't like everything, but it's important to try new things, because you may find something that you really like. Buy a piece of local art or a piece of typical clothing (not just a tourist T-shirt). Do what the locals do — hang out in a park listening to music, go for a walk and ask directions on the street in your broken foreign language. Become a part of the community you are serving.

One of the best things about going on a medical mission is taking all that top notch US education and skill and helping others whose health care may not be as advanced as our own. Even better is bringing back experience and interests outside your norm and understanding another people and another culture and appreciating all they have to offer.

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