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Medical Missions: You Can’t Do Everything, but You Can Still Help

Published in Medical Professionals Author: Daniel Fuglestad,MD

Six days a week 17-year-old Carina gets up at 3:00 a.m., working in the coffee fields carrying 50-pound bags down the mountain until 4:00 p.m. Afterward she cleans the house and cares for her siblings before bed at 8:00 p.m.—only to do it all over again the next day.

When family medicine physician Dr. Daniel Fuglestad treated Carina during his most recent medical mission trip, She was experiencing headaches and pain in her neck and back. It’s not something he’s used to seeing in such a young patient, but it’s not every day he sees patients in Guatemala.

“I think about my daughter, and I couldn’t imagine her having to live such a hard life. What was she doing at 17? Certainly not this,” Dr. Fuglestad said.

Stories like Carina’s are why Dr. Fuglestad keeps going back. This trip was his ninth medical mission and his fourth to Guatemala. It’s also the reason nephrologist Dr. Eric Haugen, retired family medicine physician Dr. Burnell Mellema and translator Armando Lara Guiterrez decided to participate in this year’s trip.

They traveled with 35 local church members for a nine-day mission trip to Guatemala earlier this summer. A construction crew, a Vacation Bible School group and a medical team made up the mission. The healthcare professionals included three physicians, two nurses, a recently retired physical therapist, two spiritual counselors, a translator and one individual who made glasses.

Bringing Health Care to the Underserved

Dr. Haugen checks a patient’s blood pressure in a clinic in Guatemala.

Dr. Haugen checks a patient’s blood pressure in a clinic in Guatemala.

Every day in Guatemala brought more people with different stories. One common theme emerged among the patients they saw. Life is hard. It’s often about survival—with no extra money for things like medication and regular medical treatment. Though every trip is different, Dr. Fuglestad agrees the need is something he sees every time no matter where a mission trip may take him.

“Sometimes it’s challenging to know where to begin on these missions. There is so much that could be done to help these people, but so little time and resources to do it. It’s kind of like putting a bandage on a huge gaping hole,” Dr. Fuglestad said. “I know that a band-aid won’t fix the hole, but it’s a start. We can’t do everything for these people, but we can do something.”

After years of sponsoring medical missions, Dr. Haugen decided to see what one was like for himself.

“I felt a sense of responsibility to go and help with the medical clinic. I wanted to experience it for myself. I heard how life-changing it could be from others, and it was,” Dr. Haugen said.

As a sub-specialist—he’s a nephrologist—Dr. Haugen doesn’t see children in his practice at ACMC. Yet many of his patients in Guatemala were women and children.

“I saw someone having chest pain. I saw another person with blood pressure so high she was at extreme risk for other health issues like stroke, kidney disease or even death. It was completely different than what I was used to. I don’t see patients with these kinds of problems every day. You wouldn’t think a nephrologist would be the best fit for a medical mission, but physicians of all specialties can help make a difference,” Dr. Haugen said.

Making a Difference

In Guatemala the medical team traveled to five different villages near San Lucas, their home base, seeing patients in local
churches or community centers. Many areas have some form of public health, but no medical professionals on site.

Days were busy with a quick breakfast at seven before making the 20- to 60-mile drive to care for patients in nearby villages. They spent their days assessing peoples’ needs and doing whatever possible to help. They often worked until late in the evening or until patients stopped coming. They most frequently saw patients with chronic pain like Carina, but many patients also came to them with gastrointestinal problems, minor infections and skin infections.

With the help of technology and ACMC-Willmar dermatologist Dr. Julie Schultz, they were even able to diagnose a young girl’s skin rash that they didn’t recognize.

“When we first arrived in Guatemala, there was a man waiting for us with his daughter outside our hotel gates. The little girl had an unusual rash. Though none of us recognized what it was, Dr. Mellema, Dr. Haugen and I immediately thought of someone who would—Dr. Julie Schultz,” Dr. Fuglestad said.

They took a few pictures of the girl’s rash and sent them to Dr. Schultz, telling the man to come back the next day. Meanwhile in Willmar, Dr. Schultz took a look at the rash in the photo and sent them a message to let them know what it was.

“It was such a relief—to all of us—to be able to tell him that the rash was something that would go away on its own, that it was nothing to worry about,” Dr. Haugen said. “He was so grateful that we were able to help.”

A Life-Changing Experience

Dr. Fuglestad was one of the members on the medical missions who got sick while in Guatemala, but after a quick rest on the hammock he got back to seeing patients.
Dr. Fuglestad was one of the members on the medical missions who got sick while in Guatemala, but after a quick rest on the hammock he got back to seeing patients.

Dr. Fuglestad was one of the members on the medical missions who got sick while in Guatemala, but after a quick rest on the hammock he got back to seeing patients.

Medical missions, while rewarding, can be as exhausting emotionally as they are physically. This year the whole medical team—everyone but Armando—got sick, some with 100-plus degree fevers. One of the nurses even had to lie down where they were treating patients. Despite the illnesses and roller coasters of emotions they encountered, the team soldiered on, doing everything in their power to take care of their patients.

“We frequently aren’t able to do as much as we’d like. It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with when I see patients, and that’s not an easy thing for a doctor to do,” Dr. Fuglestad said.

After Dr. Fuglestad’s first mission trip, he was so discouraged about what he saw that he spoke with his dad, who was also a physician and had volunteered for medical missions over the years.

“The first year I went on the mission trip to Guatemala, I went to a small village. It was difficult for me to see so many people suffering. By Friday I was emotionally spent, feeling so despaired because of all the suffering I saw. I knew my dad would be able to relate. I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, ‘Dan – it’s not your fault that these people are suffering and poor. But now that you have seen them, you have a responsibility to do something.’ So I do. I go back as often as I can because I know that he was right. I do have a responsibility to do something.”

If there’s one thing Dr. Fuglestad tries to remember it’s that one person can’t do everything, but each person can do something. You shouldn’t fail to act just because you can’t do everything. It’s advice that he takes to heart.

“Logically I understand that any help is better than none,” Dr. Fuglestad said. “Emotionally it can be a little more difficult when you treat a child and know that you won’t be here to help manage that care months, years down the road. We’re able to treat a condition once, but there is no way for us to provide long-term treatment for those who suffer from chronic illnesses. We do what we can and wish we could do more.”

Dr. Haugen agrees, “Every day was really heartbreaking. There was so much chronic illness—things we couldn’t manage without setting up long-term care. The poverty so many face in Guatemala is overwhelming. Even though we gave them very little, they were exceedingly appreciative.”

He adds, “You get so comfortable with the American lifestyle that you don’t stop to think how other people live. We take so much for granted. I know what we did made a difference in these people’s lives, but what they didn’t realize is how much of an impact they made on ours.”

It’s something that Dr. Fuglestad and Armando observed as well.

“When I began these mission trips, I wanted to see what life was like where many of my patients were from. The first time I visited it was shocking. Even now it’s hard to see how so many Guatemalans live. People lived in rustic tin houses, the poverty so apparent. You quickly realize how lucky we are to live like we do,” Dr. Fuglestad said.

“You see these people living like they do with problems we can’t even begin to imagine. It’s a rough life, and I’m glad we could do something to make things a little easier for them,” Armando said.

For Armando that meant facilitating communication between patient and doctor as Dr. Haugen’s Spanish translator. He speaks Spanish fluently, but Armando still had to work with other translators to communicate with the patient in their local language. He also took every opportunity he could to play with the kids while they waited for their parents to be seen by a doctor.

An Experience to Remember

Dr. Daniel Fuglestad, his wife, Armando and Dr. Burnell Mellema take some time to enjoy the beautiful views in Guatemala.

Dr. Daniel Fuglestad, his wife, Armando and Dr. Burnell Mellema take some time to enjoy the beautiful views in Guatemala.

It’s an experience that they won’t soon forget.

“It was eye-opening—really exciting and rewarding work,” Armando said. “You think you are going to a country to help the people there, but in reality they do so much more for you. I hope everyone takes the chance to do something like this at some point in their lives.”

He adds, “For just a little bit of time, we were able to bring help, smiles and happiness to people in regions who need it most. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”

All four hope to get the chance to go back, whether it’s to Guatemala or on a similar medical mission.

“If what we do in one week helps even one person, the whole trip was worth it,” Dr. Haugen said. “We may not be able to change the world on these medical missions, but patient by patient, we can make a difference in their worlds.”

If you would like more information on the mission trip through Willmar’s Evangelical Free Church and First Baptist, contact Ben Green at 320-235-4317. Individuals interested in participating in a medical mission are encouraged to contact Dr. Daniel Fuglestad at ACMC.