Overseas Medical Volunteer

Insider Info

A woman is clutching her mouth and moaning with pain. She makes her way down the cobblestone path from her village to a makeshift medical station, where her mouth will be examined for the first time in her life.

The dentist reassures the patient, and gets ready to extract a diseased tooth. Suddenly, the power goes out. But the dentist is used to working in minimal conditions, and someone holds a flashlight so the operation can continue.

Global medical volunteers travel to different parts of the world to give aid and medical attention to people in great need. The medical professionals who go on these ventures are doctors, nurses and dentists; they are assisted by a host of non-medical personnel. The non-medical volunteers help with odd jobs, set up facilities and help organize the camps.

Global medical volunteers travel to places such as Peru, Thailand, India, Africa, Guatemala, Venezuela and Honduras.

"The places can be very remote," says Deborah Crow, who works with an organization called Flying Doctors of America. "We've had some missions that get to villages by rafting a river or going by horseback." Other missions are held in camps; volunteers often stay in hotels in less remote areas.

Volunteers don't just pack their bags and decide to go to a foreign country to give aid. It takes planning and preparation to be a medical volunteer.

"It took a quite a bit of research to find the right organization," says Greg Stidham, a volunteer for the International Children's Heart Foundation.

Instead of going alone, volunteers usually find a compatible organization that will coordinate a volunteer medical mission for them.

"These days the volunteer donates time and effort for a few weeks, but returns in his or her usual job after the brief time volunteering," says Joe DiCarlo, a medical volunteer.

Ideally, the volunteer returns a couple times a year to the same location. "In that way they can build up a good, strong relationship with the people they are involved with," says DiCarlo.

Most volunteers help set up a care system with the local medical staff in the country, rather than setting up a foreign clinic. "It's rare that an American or Canadian or French group actually puts together their own clinic overseas and directly cares for the people," says DiCarlo. "If that were the case, the minute the outsiders close down the program the service is lost, and it is rare that an outsider stays in a foreign place forever."

It's better to train or collaborate with local doctors and nurses to help them work in a more efficient and effective manner, adds DiCarlo.

Foreign medical centers usually have a willing staff but lack other resources. "What has been lacking has usually been systematic things: the hospitals aren't run well, creativity and initiative are stifled and good equipment can't be afforded," says DiCarlo. The need for medical volunteers remains steady around the world.

"We're steadily growing," says Crow about her organization. "We sometimes have to add another mission if there are more people willing to volunteer."

It's difficult to estimate how many people in North America are volunteering their services overseas. It's estimated that at least 10,000 people help out each year. This doesn't include workers for organizations such as the Red Cross, which pays its medical relief staff.

The car creeps up the steep winding hill to Joe DiCarlo's temporary residence in Zagreb, Croatia. During the war, he volunteered his services as a doctor at a local hospital. But in a place that was often filled with chaos, DiCarlo spent much of his time just trying to get to places to administer his medicine.

His Bosnian friend, Emir, pulls over to the curb to drop DiCarlo off for the night. They sit for a few minutes in the darkness making plans to meet tomorrow to drive to Bosnia. Unfortunately, their car is parked in front of the president's house and guards come out to investigate.

"Apparently this trips off some sort of protocol and we are detained," says DiCarlo. "More military guards come, then the military police, then the state police." They are held up for more than two hours when their passage is finally cleared. "Two hours in the snow, apparently a direct threat to the safety of the president and they never did search our car for weapons," says DiCarlo.

The next day DiCarlo took a bus down the hill. "It had snowed 15 centimeters [six inches] up there, and I more than half hoped the trip would be called off," says DiCarlo. He wanted to leave early because they were heading through Serb-held territory and needed to make use of the daylight. The snow tapered off as their car and a convoy of two others headed towards Bosnia. They waited at the river for a small ferry that could only carry 10 cars at a time. After hours of waiting, a larger ferry was put in use. It took three hours to cross, and then the ferry had trouble docking to unload the cars.

"They got the kinks out; the sun went down and we got across," says DiCarlo. The convoy that was supposed to be waiting for DiCarlo on the other side was gone.

"Emir apologizes for the bumpy ride, saying that he wants to drive as fast as possible to avoid any unauthorized checkpoints," says DiCarlo. "No one is talking, although I am silently cursing having taken this trip and this job." They continue to drive flat out in the pitch black. "This goes on and on and the eeriness never fades." In the distance, they spot soldiers on the road: a checkpoint.

"You got any weapons?" the soldier asks, peering into the car. The soldiers wave them through without asking for their passports and DiCarlo finally makes it to his destination.

DiCarlo is a pediatrician who volunteers to administer aid overseas. He has since finished his work in Bosnia. Even though supplies are often limited in these places, he finds that getting to the job is often much harder than getting the job done.

Getting to the job was also difficult for Greg Stidham, who wanted to volunteer his services abroad. "I began to look for volunteer opportunities and found there was no easy way to learn what was out there," he says. It took him a couple years of research to find an organization, and even then he wasn't sure what he was getting into.

"A 70-plus dynamo of a woman invited me to visit a children's hospital in Nicaragua," says Stidham. "I was led to believe that the purpose was to be for me to provide some teaching."

The situation was confusing at the hospital, and he wasn't sure how to help. However, he did find out that among other problems, the hospital couldn't perform surgery on kids with congenital heart disease because of a lack of training and resources. "I thought, 'OK, I can help with this,'" says Stidham.

He went back to the U.S., and two years later, once funding was available, Stidham was back in Nicaragua.

"The first open-heart surgeries in the country were done by our team working side-by-side with our Nicaraguan colleagues," he says. "The idea was to teach them these procedures so that they might be self-sufficient in five years."

The trip was a huge success, medically as well as diplomatically. The U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua told Stidham and his colleagues that they had done more for the relationship between the two countries than he had done in the past six months.

"Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the enthusiasm was there and the media coverage for the entire time was indeed dramatic," says Stidham.

You don't have to be able to perform open-heart surgery to volunteer on a medical expedition. Deborah Crow took a trip to a few mountain villages in Peru. She isn't in the health profession, but went to film a documentary and to help organize the mission.

"You learn how wonderful it is to spread the wealth out to people who have nothing," says Crow. "It's given me a new perspective on life, and to remember to be grateful for a bath, food on the table and access to medicine -- something too many people don't have."

How to Get Involved

The cost of helping out varies with different organizations. Some will foot the bill for transportation, food and lodging. Others are only able take care of a volunteer's needs once he or she gets to the country.

"Even if they pay everything, you can give up a lot of time to do this, and in our culture time is money," says Stidham.

The physical requirements vary with the type of work you want to do. "In our case, we were walking down cobblestone mountain paths to get to the medical station," says Crow.

You can go to more accessible or more remote places. "The demands depend entirely on the project, and the projects vary greatly," says Stidham.

Work opportunities can be generated in the area where a person has volunteered their services. Organizations such as the Red Cross also coordinate missions where they pay medical staff for their services.

Non-medical aides can get experience in the field and see if they enjoy working in the medical profession.


Doctors Without Borders
One of the largest international medical organizations

Flying Doctors of America
Contact them and they will send you an information packet

American Red Cross
Information on volunteer opportunities

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