Over the past six years, Sharon London, an emergency room nurse at St. Michael’s Medical Center, has traveled to South America as a volunteer for the Guyana Medical Mission.
“I always believe in giving back,” said London. “As a nurse, I wanted to do something like this for years but didn’t get the opportunity until I started working for St. Michael’s and found out about this medical mission.”
London is part of a team of 40 volunteers consisting of board members, doctors, surgeons, nurses and lab techs who visit the country each year to provide much needed medical services.
The volunteers are split into specialized teams for surgery, pediatrics, eye care and the clinics. “On the last trip we conducted 1,100 medical screenings, 500 pediatric exams, and 60 surgeries,” explained London.
“We spent eight days and visit seven different clinics, covering some 300 miles, to work with the underprivileged and underserved communities in Guyana,” explained London who coordinates patient registration, education efforts and makes sure the clinic runs smoothly. “At each site we monitored blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and did a full eye exam and complete medical screening --all for free.”
London said the need is so great, that many times people are lined up at the clinics well before they open at 7 a.m. and volunteers often stay late to make sure they can see all the children when they start arriving after school.
“It is busy, we see between 250-300 adults and 50-60 children a day, but it is a fun busy because you are interacting closely with patients and other volunteers. Some of these people have never been to a doctor and will come in with extremely high blood pressure, so we have to check them, medicate them, and educate them about eating and diet.” She added, “When you do something you love it doesn’t feel like work.”
According to London, education is a huge component of the mission. “We talk about topics they are interested in from hypertension, diabetes and childbirth to teaching CPR and ways to prevent choking and drowning. They are so respectful and are excited to know what they can do to fix or prevent these and other health issues.” She continued, “When you come back the next year and check their charts and see improvements, it is very rewarding to know you have had an impact on their lives.”
Successful health outcomes also provide great learning opportunities. “This young lady came in bleeding a few years ago and had to have a hysterectomy. Every year she comes back to see us and lets us share her story to help teach others. She talks about her surgery and how she is still a woman even though she lost her ‘woman parts’ (a commonly held belief in some cultures) and tells people she would not be standing here without the surgery and ‘we helped save her life’.”
Part of the education effort also includes working with local doctors to assist with new medical techniques and updated information. The volunteers maintain detailed health cards for all the patients and always debrief the local doctors to make sure that they are updated on the health conditions of people in their communities.
London explained that the need for humanitarian health care work continues to grow. “The resources are just not available and local doctors don’t have access to the knowledge base and experience that our doctors have. Some people will even wait six months to a year to get surgery until our doctors come back.” She added, “This year the Guyana government asked us to add three more sites, so we will have nine sites to serve when we return, but I am looking forward to it.”
In addition to using her medical skills during the missions, London also volunteers as the mission’s public relations person to help increase awareness of the program, encourage volunteer participation and to raise funds and get the supply donations needed to keep the mission going.
Giving back is more than just being a volunteer for London, it is a way of life. “You can’t just go to school or work and come home. No one should just take, take, take and not give back. You need to participate in your community and do something that fills you up and gives you that sense of belonging in life.” She added, “I don’t need to win the lotto; I feel full and rich knowing I can give back.”
London resides in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and has been a nurse for 18 years.
Click here for a story about the mission that appeared in the Guyana Times.