I was sitting in this same spot almost exactly two years ago. (Actually, I think it was the room next door, but what are 15 feet between friends?) I’d just arrived in Namibia for the first time. On that day, I had some idea of what the next two weeks would bring. Today I have a better idea, but I’m well aware that much changes along the way. Volunteering is often a good exercise in flexibility.
People ask me why I do medical missions. In 2012, a friend gave me an opportunity that would change my life. He invited me on a medical mission. I’d already been managing the group’s blog and social media for a few years. But the chance to actually travel with the team was something I’d hadn’t expected. I wouldn’t consider myself particularly adventurous, but I knew I had to go. And so, I found myself in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta with the International Extremity Project.
Not only did my first trip provide an amazing life experience, but it helped fill a void in my heart. I realize that sounds a bit dramatic, but I’ll explain.
My sons were born in 2003. They were supposed to be born in 2004. Instead, they arrived 14 weeks early and weighed less than two pounds each. One spent 110 days in intensive care, the other died in my arms an hour after he was born.
That experience shredded me. And it made me question why I spent 40+ hours a week helping a billion-dollar technology company make more dollars. Why wasn’t I doing something that helped people?
I wanted a job that made a difference. I looked into changing careers, pursuing a different degree, and other options. But in the end, the reality came to one thing: insurance. I needed to stay in the job I had to manage my son’s hospital bills and what would end up being several years of specialist medical care. So, I stayed.
And then, almost ten years later, I went to Vietnam as a blogger for a nonprofit managed by one of my doctors. I ended up right in the middle of things. I helped with the patient intake process during the screening days, then managing charts and patient information. I sat with patients during surgeries to calm them and went on post-op rounds. I became part of something and got to connect directly with the people we helped.
This is my fifth mission and my second in Namibia. I am privileged to work with a group of medical professionals who travel around the world to bring medical care to people in need. Our doctors primarily do foot and ankle surgeries to repair deformities brought on at birth, by illness, or by trauma. They change lives.
Children who have been unable to attend school because of physical limitations — or social stigma — have a chance to be kids unencumbered by their deformities. Adults who have lived decades never actually having seen their feet in the right position, see their toes pointing where they should. And they know they’ll have improved mobility — and all the opportunities that come with it.
Earlier this year I got to bring my surviving son, now 14, with me to Vietnam. I not only shared with him the experience of a country far different from our own, but also working in the hospital during the patient screening.
It’s exhausting and exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, and often emotional. It’s 100% human. And I get to be in the middle of it. And I am grateful for the opportunity.