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Volunteers in mission provide medical help in Panama


 United Methodist Volunteers in Mission members begin the day in prayer. The medical mission team, based out of First United Methodist Church in Glen Ellyn,
Ill., is staffing a weeklong clinic near the rural town of Chiriqui, Panama.
UMNS photos by Larry Nelson.

A UMNS Feature
By Lilla Marigza*
May 23, 2007

In rural Panama, hundreds of men, women and children have come to see a doctor. It is an opportunity that only comes around at certain times of the year when medical mission teams visit Chiriqui.

This is a remote mountain area, 10 hours from the nearest hospital. Many of the patients belong to the indigenous Ngöbe population.


 Dr. Calvin Morris examines a young patient as her mother and siblings watch.

"In our country, it is hard to imagine the need that these people have," says Dr. Calvin Morris, a volunteer in mission and retired physician from Ohio. "We just don't experience it. The poorest of our poor have better access to care than these folks will ever have."

During a weeklong stay in Panama, doctors will treat a range of health concerns,
including vitamin deficiencies, skin infections and more serious chronic health conditions. "We see a lot of untreated high blood pressure, undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. Things that would have gotten screened out and sent to specialists years ago just walk in here daily untreated," Morris says.

Most of what the doctors see are the common side effects of poverty.

"A lot of respiratory problems, diarrhea, dysentery, worms, lice, malnutrition, iron deficiency," says Dr. Barry Kramm, a United Methodist physician from Michigan, describing what he is treating. "One of the first things I found yesterday - they call it dirt eating. It's significant for nutritional and iron deficiencies."

A range of expertise

Medical mission teams consist of doctors, dentists, nurses, lab technicians and medical support staff. Everyone has a job to do. Anne Kushner, whose husband is one of the two dentists on this trip, spends her days sterilizing instruments between office visits. "My job is to make sure that the dentists and doctors can keep working and not feel they're spreading germs."

Anne's husband, Dr. Alan Kushner, runs a successful dental practice in Chicago but says he has taken time off to come to Panama where there is a genuine need. "Too often at home, people in America are more concerned with things like, my teeth aren't white enough, and these people have no dental treatment, no access to care, no alternatives to care. If I can't do it today nobody else can. So I try. That's why I'm here."


 Villagers wait for the clinic to open.

The doctors evaluate patients, while Kay Potenza, a medical microbiologist, runs a lab on site. Here she can screen for infections, anemia and diabetes while the patients wait. "By bringing laboratory testing services, we have diagnostic tools so that we can get specific answers for the doctors and help them in prescribing the things that they need to prescribe."

Mission teams bring their own medical equipment and medicines. Over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and even a few pairs of reading glasses for this annual visit were collected from members of Glen Ellyn (Ill.) First United Methodist Church, where this mission group is based.

Volunteers in Mission coordinator Jane Dunn explains it is a way for those who cannot make the trip to contribute to the effort. "I usually set a suitcase out in our church, put a sign on it with some pictures that show where we're going and have a list of what we need, and it's overwhelming. We just get more than you can imagine in terms of medication supplies that way."

These medicines will help hundreds of people in a single clinic mission trip. The Rev. Marcos Morales, pastor of the Methodist Church in David, Panama, volunteers when the mission teams are in town. On this day, he is registering patients and recording their medical histories. "This is a very easy day," he says. "Other times we have seen over 200 persons in a day, sometimes 300."

Follow-up challenges

Since teams can't serve that many patients in a day, families toward the end of the line are given vouchers and told to return the following day.

Some who come seeking help, especially the young children, have never before been treated by a doctor. "Several years ago they had medical attention from the government, but not now," Morales adds.


Children make the trek from their village
to the clinic.

The care that this team can offer is limited. Doctors, like Calvin Morris, admit it is not an ideal treatment arrangement. "It creates a real problem of follow-up. There will be nobody here for months and months and the next access they have for care might be us next year so we have to do the best we can for them and hope for a good outcome."

One way these missionaries are contributing to better long-term health is through training. While patients wait hours to see the doctors, members of the medical team hand out toothbrushes and toothpaste and show children how to brush their teeth.

Just outside the small clinic, nurses are teaching a simple form of water purification. Residents of this rural community have no running water in their homes. The people bathe, water livestock, and wash their clothes in the same stream. Waterborne parasites and diseases are a leading cause of illness here.

'Knowledge is power'

In the hot, tropical sun, the team is handing out one-liter water bottles, two per person in every family. Nurse Linda Elsik and other volunteers show mothers how to filter water through a cloth and pour it into the individual bottles. Several hours in full sun will heat the water sufficiently to kill most waterborne contaminants. It is a simple process, but it must be done every day to be effective.


A mother and her daughter are among the hundreds of patients seen each day.

"I believe knowledge is power. If we can teach these people how to take care of themselves and how to do some basic health practices that will keep their children living longer and keeping them living longer … if we can do that, we've made a really good mark on humanity," Elsik says.

These medical missionaries say their work here goes beyond curing physical discomfort. It is a way to spread the love of Christ. "If you really look at what brought the crowds to Christ, you know some came for enlightenment, some came to see what all the excitement was about, but overwhelmingly what brought them was healing and they came to be healed, and that's one thing that we can give these people," Morris says.

Panamanian teenager Javier Montanero volunteers when medical clinics are in town. He is proud to be a missionary to his own people. "When I was a child in school, I heard about these kinds of trips, and I'm so glad to be here because I'm part of the 'God team.'"
The Rev. Tom Potenza, pastor of First United Methodist of Glen Ellyn, says the team's presence is an example of Christian love to the people of Panama. "Just like the sign says outside of this building, 'Go into all the world and make disciples.' We're doing that here medically but we're also doing it spiritually and personally, and we're just grateful to God that we can continue to do this.

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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