MCHC Health Centers Employees Fulfill Dream of Providing Healthcare Abroad

August 2018

Medical assistants Araceli Zamora and Yarely Ortega of MCHC Health Centers recently fulfilled a years-long dream of travelling abroad to care for people in an underdeveloped region.

Zamora and Ortega had discussed their desire to go on a medical mission trip but had no idea one of their colleagues could help facilitate this. As it happened, the CEO of Hands for Global Health worked just down the hall: Chris Ayeko, MSN, FNP-C, PHN.

Ayeko oversees Hands for Global Health (HGH), a non-profit organization that “works to improve the health and welfare of indigenous peoples of Latin America,” according to its mission statement. HGH facilitates medical missions to Latin American villages, bringing together health professionals and health professions students from the United States to provide public health interventions.

Ayeko said, “As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, global health has always been an interest of mine. I have found that volunteering in other countries with underserved populations to be an amazing way to help others and to see the world.” So much so that he became HGH’s CEO. Ayeko travels to Latin America every year to provide primary care to people who would otherwise go without and when he discovered Zamora and Ortega were interested, he invited them to join him.

Medical professionals must pay for the privilege of serving, so when Zamora and Ortega committed to going, MCHC immediately supported their fundraising, allowing them to sell food and root beer floats to other employees who were happy to donate to the cause.

After raising enough to afford the trip, Zamora and Ortega took off for a week in Batata, Panama. They arrived at the village school that closes a couple times a year to become a temporary health center—three rooms are used to triage and treat patients and the other three rooms are used to house the health team, which is made up of mid-level providers, mid-level students, and our two MAs.

Zamora and Ortega were responsible for intake and triage: welcoming patients, taking vital signs, asking about the patients’ health problems, and determining who needed the most urgent care. In fact, Ortega was put in charge of this service, a role usually reserved for a provider.

Patients often came with other family members, sometimes as many as a dozen all together. Moms carried babies in bags they strapped over their heads. The youngest patients were infants and the oldest didn’t know how old they were. In fact, many of the adults didn’t know exactly how old they were.

“The people were really private and shy,” Ortega said. “If we asked about whether they were pregnant, some would say no even if they were.” They were also more conservative in the way they dressed. Women covered their legs with long skirts and visitors were expected to do the same. However, Zamora noted, “At the same time, they were really open about their bodies. If a woman was breastfeeding, she didn’t hide.”

Both Zamora and Ortega were impressed with the creativity of the healthcare team. At one point, a pediatric patient needed a nebulizing treatment for asthma. They didn’t have a baby mask, so the team found a cylindrical tennis ball container and used it to make a spacer, creating a makeshift inhaler. The healthcare team also provided instructions that overcame any language or literacy gap. The team drew pictures—a sun to represent morning, a moon to represent evening, a picture of the pill to show which medication to take.

Patients came from miles around to receive treatment, walking for hours and sometimes making a two-day trip on foot to come to the clinic where they often had to wait for several more hours. They did not complain. The clinic provided a small meal to patients since most of them spent a better part of the day either traveling or waiting for care. Although the healthcare was free, some patients brought fruit or other small gifts to show their gratitude.

While patients waited to be seen, Peace Corps workers, called “charlas,” provided health education about everything from the importance of clean water and hand washing to how to put on a condom. They also helped translate the local dialect.

Zamora said clean water is hard to come by, and as a result, many people came in with symptoms of dehydration. Other common health problems included rashes, headaches, fungus, malnutrition, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Because HGH visits a couple times a year, some patients had been there before. They came in asking for “the cream for their pain” (Icy Hot) or basic pain reducers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Although there was very little downtime, Zamora and Ortega played with local kids after work and before dinner, mostly baseball, which the kids seemed to love.

“The kids were so curious. They were shy but would peek in the windows at us,” said Zamora. “And they had amazing memories. We told them our names once and they remembered them. You get really attached to the kids.”

Both MAs said they would go back every year if they could. “It was a life-changing experience,” Ortega said.

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