Reflections on a Light-Filled Mission

Written by Jodi Grahl

It was after 11 on Sunday night when we finally touched down at O’Hare. My 16th mission trip with Solidarity Bridge had come to an end. We’d been up since before dawn. Everyone was exhausted and eager to get home to a warm, familiar bed. At the same time, it was bittersweet having to say goodbye to each individual teammate as they gathered their last suitcase and hesitantly headed out into the cold Chicago night. Each helped keep the mission flames burning this week in his or her unique role. We grew close this week, and I didn’t want to let them go.

I remember the moment when Malcolm insisted we stay late to fit in the colostomy reversal for the patient who missed his original surgery appointment and turned up the next day at our office in tears, pleading that the doctors restore his intestinal tract. He couldn’t afford to get the surgery elsewhere, and besides, it was a particularly complicated case that needed Malcolm’s expertise.

And I can’t help but smile when I think of Katie, anesthesiologist and first-time missioner, who so patiently and lovingly encouraged the young and very nervous Bolivian anesthesiology resident she was partnered with. And then there’s Jen, the  anesthesiologist from our second surgical team,  who was willing to stay behind in Cochabamba if necessary when a patient needed her Friday evening. Gladly she made it to the airport, still in her scrubs but beaming with the satisfaction of knowing all her patients were safe and well.

And what would we have done without Stephanie, our only P.A.? Somehow she managed to stay on top of everything as the surgery schedule was constantly shifting, either to fit a new urgent case or to give a scheduled patient more time for pre-op labs or for any of a dozen other competing reasons. But how could Stephanie be so brilliant in the O.R. and still be afraid of butterflies and turtles? (That’s a story for another day … Stephanie had a way of keeping us entertained, too. We worked hard but also laughed just as hard this week!)

I also can’t imagine how we could have pulled off this trip without Vivian and Natalie, our “sister” interpreters, processing the non-stop action in two languages for 8 or 10 or 12 hours each day. They are our true bridges! We were delighted to have two actual brothers with us as well, Octavio and Francisco, Canadian-born students at the local medical school who not only helped bridge the language gaps but also knew the best pizza delivery place in the neighborhood. 

And then there’s Gay. Unfazed that she was the sole missioner to arrive that first Saturday when the rest of us were stranded in Chicago, or even by the fact that her personal luggage was also stuck in the U.S., leaving her without so much as a hairbrush. Hair combed or not, no one had to ask her to take on the extra load of reviewing patient cases for both teams until we caught up with her the next day. Shall I mention here that Gay did 28 surgeries at two different hospitals this week? Then stuck around in Cochabamba an extra morning to teach a course on laparoscopic colon surgery! I honestly don’t know how she does it.
I am also incredibly grateful to Ann, our Executive Director, who didn’t hesitate to step into the chaplain role, guiding our group reflections and accompanying patients and anyone else who needed her throughout the week.

Rounding out the team on a high note was David, a first-time missioner filling the new role of medical supplies coordinator. What a relief it was to have one person to own the unglamorous tasks of sorting and organizing and schlepping and running-to-grab-one-more of this-or-that … and to never, ever complain and to always be up for any task. David – you are officially assigned to every mission team I ever lead again! 

Of course none of this would have been even remotely possible without the infinitely capable staff at our sister office in Cochabamba, Puente de Solidaridad, or our Viedma and Cochabamba hospital partners. Through the interconnected work of the dozens of individuals and several institutions involved in this 1-week mission trip, we managed to provide almost 50 surgeries! Even today, two days after the missioners returned home, our Bolivian partners continue to operate on a few patients we could not get to last week. It is such a relief to know that thanks to them, no one was turned away from getting the care they need. The light burns on!

THANK YOU to all who made this mission trip a glorious and ILLUMINATED SPACE for all! 

Jodi Grahl is the Director of Gynecology, General Surgery, and Pacemaker Programs at Solidarity Bridge. She is leading our 2017 Spring General Surgery Mission Trip, taking place from March 10 to 19. 

Throughout the year, our Bolivian partner surgeons perform gall bladder and hernia surgeries for impoverished patients identified through our Bolivian office in Cochabamba. Our mission teams deliver vital equipment and supplies and provide ongoing training 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. Learn more about our General Surgery Program