BLUE HILL, Maine — Some years ago in a remote village in Bolivia, a woman was suffering from internal bleeding several months after childbirth. She knew she couldn’t afford the operation at the nearby hospital, so she left the clinic and walked miles back into the mountains to her home.
A team that included U.S. doctors and nurses from the Hancock County Medical Mission followed her in a truck and on foot when the truck couldn’t make it up the mountain. They talked with the woman for an hour and a half to convince her to come back to the hospital and have the operation.
When she returned to the clinic several days later, she looked so much better that the visiting staff there did not recognize her.
“If she hadn’t had that operation, she probably would have died,” said Susan Young, a registered nurse and the diabetes education and infection prevention nurse at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. “And the thing is, that could have been anywhere.”
That’s why Young is returning to South America, leaving today for the town of Cotacachi, Ecuador, about an hour and a half north of the capital of Quito. She is one of 26 people traveling to Ecuador with the Hancock County Medical Mission.
This is the 19th year the mission has traveled to South America to provide medical care, including surgeries, for residents in the remote areas of the country, treatment they otherwise might not receive. This will be Young’s 10th trip with the mission; nine have been to Ecuador and one was to Bolivia.
Young, a Sedgwick resident, admitted Thursday that she had not yet packed for the trip, but said all the medical supplies and equipment are packed and ready to go. The group brings enough surgical instruments — some borrowed from a local hospital — to do two surgeries at a time at the small, local hospital in Cotacachi, all of the medications associated with the pre- and post-operation procedures, as well as medications, supplies and equipment for daily clinics at a nearby village.
“We bring our own supplies and teach the local medical staff as much as we can,” she said. “We teach by example instead of holding formal classes. We’re guests, after all, and want to be respectful of their culture and protocols.”
The clinics often are set up in local buildings, such as a church, school or the town hall. They regularly piece together privacy curtains using duct tape and sheets.
“It’s strictly blue tarp and duct tape,” she said.
The two-week trip translates into about 8½ days of providing treatment, often including 10-hour or more stints in surgery.
Most of the patients they see are indigenous residents from remote villages; people who generally do not have access to regular health care, Young said. Some of the patients they see will have walked a full day to get to the clinic or the hospital, she said.
“They are so appreciative,” she said. “They know who we are and they will come up to us in the street, give us a hug and, with tears in their eyes, say ‘Thank you for taking care of my baby.’ It’s so rewarding to go and help people that might not have had anything if we had not gone there.”
Last year, during an eight-day stay, the mission treated 1,088 adults and 525 children. The surgical team, with whom Young works as an operating room nurse, did 169 surgeries ranging from gallbladder removal to hernia repairs.
In addition, the team will provide eye and dental examinations and treatment, and even brings eyeglasses for patients who might need them.
The volunteers come from a variety of medical backgrounds, and regularly include areas such as family medicine, anesthesia, surgery pharmacy, health education and nursing. The team also includes volunteers with nonmedical backgrounds who help with translating, check-ins, child care and maintenance.
In some cases, she said, the nonmedical volunteers get drafted into the surgical unit. One volunteer, a seamstress traveling on her fourth or fifth trip with the mission, has learned how to clean, sterilize and repackage surgical instruments. Another, a retired teacher, was taught how to handle retractors in surgery when an extra set of hands was needed.
The mission often includes high school students on its trips, and this year three Hancock County high school students, one each from Lamoine, Castine and Bucksport, will be making the trek to Ecuador.
“These mission trips change the lives of the students who travel with us,” she said. “It feels good to make a difference in the lives of these patients, and all of us are touched by just how grateful the patients and their families are. It’s incredible.”
Young said her experiences with the medical mission have had an impact on her life as well, and have changed the way she interacts with patients in Blue Hill.
“I’ve become more compassionate,” she said. “My trips to South America always remind me to focus on the individual, not his or her medical situation. I take my patients personally, and I know my colleagues do too.”