Flora Levin is a Westport plastic surgeon. She just returned from Guatemala, where she volunteered with the International Esperanza Project, a medical aid organization. Her 9th-grade daughter went too, working alongside surgeons and nurses, in the hospital.
“It was an incredible experience,” Flora says. She writes:
I got involved with this medical/surgical mission through the wife of a friend/ and colleague.
I wanted to go for years, but COVID happened. This was the first opportunity to go since 2019.
I worked at a hospital run by nuns in Patzun, about 2 hours outside Guatemala City. It is truly a 3rd world place, where you feel that you are going back 2 centuries.
There are no modern amenities. People cook on open fires, sleep 5 in one bed, and work in the fields after completing primary education. There is no preventative medicine, or what we consider routine care. Most families have 7-10 children.
When we first arrived, the most incredible sight was children and adults waiting in long lines outside the hospital, from 6 in the morning, to be seen. They waited patiently for hours, appreciative when their turn came, even if it was 8 hours later.
I was there with 3 other oculoplastic surgeons, one from Dallas and one from Paraguay. There were also 2 fellows (in training to be oculoplastic surgeons). There were 2 general surgeons, 1 pediatric surgeon and 1 pediatric ophthalmologist, in addition to an anesthesiologist, nurses and volunteers. My 14-year-old daughter Miri came as a volunteer.
We worked for 5 days. On the first day we evaluated patients and scheduled them for surgery. The rest of the days we operated.
The conditions were not optimal: fewer operating rooms than surgeons, leaving procedures that did not require general anesthesia to be done in a regular room without ideal surgical lighting or air conditioning, limited supplies, and old equipment. Despite those challenges we did 55 oculoplastic procedures in both kids and adults and, with other specialties, operated on 123 patients.
Most people who came on this mission had never met before. It was incredible to see how everyone came together, putting personal needs (and egos) aside for a common goal. We shared all meals, late hours at the hospital, and left Guatemala as close friends. Without that camaraderie, kindness and humor, the challenging situation would have been impossible.
My daughter Miri worked tirelessly alongside the adults. She helped in the pre-operative area, playing with the kids waiting for surgery. She helped the nurses, got to watch hernia and gallbladder surgeries, and got to scrub in with me on a case and watch me operate. That was incredibly special.
It was an incredible week, Being able to help so many people and touch so many lives is a feeling that cannot be put into words. I plan to return next year, hopefully with supplies that I know will be valuable to provide even better care to those that need it.
I also have a new appreciation for all the modern-day amenities we take for granted!
(For more information on The International Esperanza Project, click here.)
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