In less than a week, we will enter the 2014 holiday season. Our focus will be on gift-giving, elegant parties, music, delicious food, family and friends. But, what if we were to set aside our luxurious life style to give to those less fortunate? Not a check, but ourselves.
A “voluntourism” trip can be a positive way to spend vacations using valuable skills from careers such as education, computer science, medicine, farming, and construction.
Haiti, a short 90 minute plane ride from Miami, is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. This tiny country of 9 million people lacks medical infrastructure and trained medical workers. I was about to meet extreme poverty up close and personal.
Watching television one day, I saw a group of nurses volunteering in a remote medical clinic in the mountains of Haiti. I was hooked. After 18 months of planning, I was able to wrestle some non-scheduled, unpaid days from my employer. When I finally flew to Haiti and worked in an outdoor village clinic as a nurse, it changed my life forever. We treated hundreds of patients. Soon I would pay for an entire clinic of medicine and supplies that ran for several days. I even ended up appearing on that same television program in the USA as one of the nurses. I traveled to Haiti three more times in quick succession and then began to look for organizations that had doctors or physician assistants as leaders of their medical teams.
I found I loved learning about treating diseases that are unknown in America. Endemic to Haiti, I saw cases of Malaria, TB, and eventually even experienced the epidemic of Cholera. Illnesses I had only read about in books were present as I worked with experienced missionary nurses. I visited dozens of orphanages as well as a specialty center for premature babies.
My favorite organization (trips 11, 12, and 13) was Samaritan’s Purse who generously staffed a clinic in the dreadful slum of Cite Soleil. I do believe this slum is my favorite place in the entire world, even though it is considered one of the most dangerous. Their work started after the earthquake in 2010 and continued through the Cholera epidemic that began later that same year. They are still doing some relief work with maternal health. I have friends that I hold dear from these journeys.
After fifteen trips to Haiti, I have never grown tired of being a medical volunteer. As a world health activist, I believe everyone deserves healthcare and to share in medical discoveries. Even though I have retired as a nurse, I still look forward to just ONE more trip to Haiti to help in a clinic or work alongside an experienced national health care worker. I especially love time working in the pharmacy area, counting pills, dispensing prescriptions and instructing the patient about their medicines.
How to Get Started:
Although air fare is going to be a chunk of your travel budget, you’ll be able to deduct it from your taxes, especially if you pair your training and skills as a donation to your favorite developing nation organization. A wise choice would be a one or two week volunteer commitment. Make sure what you’re offering as a resource is sustainable. A great example would be training a national in a mini apprenticeship. Do you know how to plumb a bathroom, put in some wiring, make sell-able jewelry, rebuild a laptop, or teach organic farming? You could be just the person a non-profit organization is looking for to supplement their work.
There are a myriad of organizations in developing nations who welcome medical volunteers. If you’re a HCW (health care worker) you are in demand to supplement local staff in clinics, especially in very rural areas. Most Non-government organizations (NGO’s) provide day trips by truck, expert interpreters, medical supplies and medicines. You may provide triage choosing the sickest patient from an outdoor waiting room, take vitals, clean a wound or help an interpreter explain a medication. Maybe you might diagnose an illness or learn about a disease such as Malaria or Cholera. It’s a good way to make lasting connections with other health care workers from around the world who share your interest. Be prepared to forgo a bathroom stop and perhaps even lunch. Clinics generally run from around 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., returning before sundown.
Do bring a suitcase of donations for your organization. Common items for a medical trip might be medicines, medical supplies, stethoscopes, BP cuffs, pulse oximeters, and even the suitcases themselves. Fundraise or crowd source if you have to for the medications which can be bought from organizations beforehand such as http://www.blessing.org/
Be prepared to bring a cash donation for the NGO you are visiting and give generous tips to those local experts who assist you such as pharmacy techs, drivers, or medical interpreters. Ask the NGO what they need and pack accordingly. Return trips are encouraged. Team up with those you connected with on your first trip. Tackling the same area more than once helps you get to know the NGO, local community and the specific needs of those in your new found favorite volunteer spot.
About the Author:
Charlotte Schmitt LPN, BA. is a retired nurse. working part time in mental health. She is a world health activist, mother, grandmother, and blogger of Haiti adventures in medicine.