Return of surgical missions serves the poor

A volunteer nurse (Cindy Martz) speaks to a young patient and puts him at ease just before surgery during the Diocese of Orlando’s surgical mission trip in Nov. 20. (COURTESY)

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | “There was a spirit missing in my day-to-day medical and surgical practice years ago and I had been looking for a mission to serve where I could use my skills to help recapture the missing joy that I had lost,” recalled Dr. Dennis Diaz. “All the extraneous noise of medicine was taking away from the reason to practice.” Then it happened. One evening he received an email asking for ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeons to participate in a medical mission to the Dominican Republic. “I responded and was totally taken by the work, by the goodness of the volunteers and the patients in my very first mission. It was good work and a good fit and I have been returning since.”

From November 2-16, the Diocese of Orlando Missions Office coordinated two surgical missions. The missions returned after a five-year hiatus while Hospital Regional Dr. Alejandro Cabral in San Juan de la Maguana was updated and renovated. Sister Bernadette “Bernie” Mackay, Mission office director, recalled the first surgical mission as “very primitive”. “We had to bring everything that was needed, even a M.A.S.H. anesthesia machine like they use in the Army.” She noted the hospital renovations included state-of-the-art equipment, facilitating the services the medical team could provide.

Since the surgical missions began in 1992, Dr. Diaz, a parishioner of Holy Cross Parish in Orlando, has served on five missions and witnessed much change. “What remains constant is the kindness of the people and the love of the volunteers,” he said.

“All of the missionaries were willing to step out of their comfort zone with great spirit and compassion,” he noted. “Even with this small group of less than 15 people we provided necessary surgical services to more than 50 patients in just a few days. I am always amazed at how people of different backgrounds and experiences can come together and achieve this wonderful goal of helping those in great need in such a short time.”

One of those volunteers was Kimberly Cremerius, a neonatal intensive care nurse from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Melbourne. Always drawn to mission work, she really wanted to go on a medical mission after completing nursing school. For her, the gift was to see how the people lived.

The patients live up in the mountains and the surgeries were in San Juan. “The weekend between the two missions, a few of us went up… It was just nice connecting the patients in their hometown to see how they live and get a feel for their lives.” She admitted, “I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that they would have probably never gotten their problems fixed if we had not come… people kept asking us to look at a cut on their arm or a kid who had a lump on his neck. They were asking us different things because they don’t get the care and we were limited to how many people we could see and how many surgeries we could do. The hope is that it’s something we can fix next time and they can be put on the list.”

As an ENT, most of Dr. Diaz’ surgeries consisted of tonsillectomies and adenoid removal. “In the Dominican Republic, because of limited health care to the very poor, tonsillar and adenoidal disease leads to failure to thrive in children,” he explained. Patients ranged from children to adults receiving gynecological surgeries and hernia repairs.

For Dr. Diaz, the experience is connected to his Catholic faith and its call to social justice. By performing these tasks for the poor, he said it helps him “use talents and skills to show God’s presence.” He added, “We are all one body in Christ and serving those who need it most carries this belief to the fullest.”

Reflecting on the trip, Cremerius said, “There were days when we were really busy, and there are days that I am really busy at work, but there was something about the work we were doing. Even though we were busy, the work is the prayer—offering what we do to God, to help others.”

The next surgical mission will be Nov. 7-21, 2020. Call 407-246-4890 for more information or go to https://www.orlandodiocese.org/ministries-offices/mission-office-welcome/.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic December 5, 2019