Written by Kim Grahl, M.D.

Flying over the Andes Mountains

May God go with you, my friend wrote, on hearing about my impending trip to Bolivia with Solidarity Bridge. Two days later, I watched dawn break behind the Andes Mountains as our plane made its ascent from the La Paz airport, en route to Santa Cruz. We had landed an hour earlier in total darkness; now my weariness melted into awe as I looked east; at first, I could only make out jagged black shapes backlit by a low sliver of orange light. Within moments, the light seeped upward, clearing the darkness and revealing a mountain landscape more magnificent than I had ever imagined. Our plane lifted higher; now I looked below as we flew over vast snow covered plateaus. Then a blinding orange ball of light materialized and at once, it seemed, it was day. I remembered my friend's words - May God go with you. God, I realized in that moment, was already there.

It is now Monday evening, the sun has set, but the operating room lights at San Juan de Dios Hospital are still on. Surgeon Magued Khouzam, anesthesiologist Nabeel Khan, with my intrepid sister Jodi Grahl as interpreter, stand shoulder to shoulder with our Bolivian surgical colleagues. They are finishing up the second of today's complex surgeries, in each instance repairing parts of the digestive system ravaged by Chagas disease. As an internal medicine doctor on my first day of my first mission trip with Solidarity Bridge, I spent the morning with a stethoscope around my neck and a packet of wooden crosses in the pocket of my white coat, visiting patients and their families. 

In many ways, despite the striking differences in resources between the hospital I practice in at home and the one I walked into today, I found that our patients here want the same things that my patients in Evanston want. They want to be free of chronic, severe pain.  They want to be able to get back to work, to support their families. They want their digestive tract to function in a normal way that allows them to enjoy a nourishing meal with their loved ones. And they want their medical care delivered in a way that respects their dignity, that recognizes them as precious individuals. 

Today, though, there were moments that stunned me. Human interactions that, even after 20+ years of practicing medicine, made my heart skip a beat. Like the first patient I visited, a middle aged woman, alone and waiting for her daughter to arrive from their rural home many hours away. Tears fell from her eyes as I listened to her lungs, told her that they sounded beautiful, and assured her that she was to have surgery later this week. As I was about to leave the bedside, the Puente de Solidaridad staff members accompanying me handed me the bag of crosses - I’m wearing many hats on this trip, team chaplain among them - and I turned back to the woman and told her that we would pray with her if she’d like.  For the first time, she truly smiled, and as she sat up, folded her hands and prayed, I saw her forehead muscles soften, her shoulders relax.  

The next patient was an older man. I listened to his heart for a long time, trying to discern the nature of the murmur I heard, aware that an echocardiogram was probably not possible, certainly not before surgery.  It occurred to me that we probably do way too many tests on patients before surgery back home. I asked him, too, if he wanted us to pray with him, and he said yes. As I lowered my eyes to pray, I noticed a hand appear from aside his bed, reaching to grasp my patients’ hand.  It was the patient in the adjacent bed, the cots lined so close together that this was possible. Like the moment I had watched the sun rise behind the Andes, once again I was filled with awe.      
 


Dr. Kim Grahl is a specialist in Internal Medicine. She is affiliated with NorthShore University HealthSystem in the Chicago suburbs. This is her first mission trip with Solidarity Bridge, she is serving as internist and chaplain. 

This mission trip is a part of our General Surgery Program. Throughout the year, our Bolivian partner surgeons perform gall bladder and hernia surgeries for impoverished patients identified through our Bolivian partner offices in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Mission trips give Solidarity Bridge the opportunity to deliver vital equipment and supplies and provide ongoing training. Our goal is to continue to advance skills in these procedures and expand competencies in these and other high-complexity surgeries such as megacolon and various oncological surgeries. 

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