Standing in Solidarity

Jodi Grahl, Director of Gynecology, General Surgery and Pacemaker Programs The 2014 General Surgery Mission Trip concluded its work on Saturday, February 22. The following final blog post comes from the GSMT trip coordinator, Jodi Grahl.

It is Monday morning, and most mission team members are happily waking up in their own beds after arriving home late last night. I am still in Cochabamba, wrapping things up and laying groundwork for my next mission trip coming up in July.

I have also spent the last 24 hours trying to understand and bring to some closure for myself the events of this past week.

Before even leaving U.S. soil, the mission began with no shortage of drama. After the catastrophic winter storm of February 13th, we didn´t know if our Atlanta and D.C. missioners would make it. So there were hugs all around when we found them, as well as our four missioners from Montana, in the Miami airport.

Then in Cochabamba, just as the first patients were wheeled into the O.R. on Monday morning, we received some terrible news. The beautiful young daughter of Carlos Laserna, Executive Director of our Cochabamba office, had lost her two-year battle with leukemia. Our hearts ached for Carlos and his family just as we focused our minds to confront the overwhelming list of patients, whose families looked to us to answer their prayers.

As the week went on, there were many moments of triumph. One 15-year-old, Esther, had been born with an esophageal stricture that no one had been able to correct until now. While she was in surgery with Malcolm Bilimoria and anesthesiologist Jennifer Garcia, 16-year-old Sara underwent successful lung surgery in the neighboring O.R. in the care of John Gregory and anesthesiologist Pat Duey. Out in Tiquipaya, Gay Garrett and anesthesiologist Dan Yousif were doing four or five surgeries a day, relieving pain and restoring health for one grateful patient after another.

A happy moment during mission! Prior to departing for home, Dr. Mike Fisher, presented $50,000 worth of equipment donations from his Montana workplace, the Billings Clinic. These materials will help our Bolivian partners complete the 6000+ gastroenterological procedures they do a year.

But there were also moments of heartbreak. Jessica, a 23-year-old mother of two, presented conditions too precarious to attempt to correct without first performing complex and expensive diagnostic tests that were simply unavailable. Six doctors from our team took part in her evaluation, in hopes of offering her and her family a solution. But to their dismay, in the end they were forced to abide by the rule, "First do no harm."

By Friday, the mission had completed 39 surgeries and over 20 high-level G.I. procedures. They are impressive numbers, but we all left the hospital the last time thinking of all the other patients we were unable to serve. Many of them can still get their operations through Solidarity Bridge´s ongoing surgery program with the Bolivian doctors we have helped train. Other cases are simply beyond any surgery available in the country.

Since bidding farewell to the mission team at the airport, I have been trying to wrap my mind around it all. Most of all, I have asked myself why this trip in particular - my sixth mission with Solidarity Bridge - despite its high share of heartbreak, has left me with such a feeling of warmth, even joy. Despite the uncertainties and the terrible tragedies we faced, why does my heart feel so full of hope and - corny as it sounds - love?

Perhaps the answer lies in the prayer shared this week by a missioner, Vivian Joffre, at one of our morning reflections. It is a prayer we have all heard so often that many know it by heart. But it perfectly sums up what our mission work is all about.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I think it is precisely when we are in a position to console even the most grief-stricken friend who has lost his beloved child, or to understand the suffering patient who speaks an indigenous tongue foreign to even our best interpreter, or to offer a loving embrace to a person we have never met before, it is in those moments when we receive more than we could ever give.

2014 General Surgery Mission Trip Team

It is also in those moments we face on mission - when we are pushed beyond our comfort level, when we are forced to make do with the minimal resources at hand while grasping at the hope of performing a miracle, even when we are obliged to succumb to the reality that our best may not be enough - that is when we have the opportunity to understand what Solidarity is all about. Because in those moments, the most important thing we can do and sometimes the only thing we can do is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other: with our fellow missioners, with our colleagues in our Bolivian office, with the Bolivian doctors and nurses, with our patients and their families. We can stand in solidarity with them, we can be present for them, and we can love them.

I want to say a special thank you to each and every member of this mission team. The 19 missioners I was privileged to help lead not only brought extraordinary professional skills, but also hearts and souls open and eager to give the very best of who they are. I hope they are waking up feeling consoled, understood, and loved by all those whose lives they touched here in Cochabamba. Bless each of you, and I hope to work with you again soon.