A Strong Start to Our First Oncological Surgery Mission Trip

Written by Jodi Grahl


At 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 11, our ten-member Solidarity Bridge mission team stepped nervously inside the glass doors of the Instituto Oncológico del Oriente Boliviano (Cancer Institute of Eastern Bolivia) for the launch of our first-ever mission trip dedicated solely to cancer surgery. After welcoming words from the chief of surgery and medical director and a quick tour of the hospital, we gathered with the Bolivian surgeons and anesthesiologists in a crowded consultation room. We met a pre-selected group of patients and discussed a course of action for each case. By noon, we had hammered out a schedule of thirteen surgeries. 


Of course, it took more than four hours to plan our week. Mission surgeon Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria and I had visited the hospital with a small delegation more than a year ago. Our partner office, Puente de Solidaridad, continued the discussions that culminated in the invitation to work alongside the hospital's team, bringing us here today. Equally important, our focus is not simply on the upcoming week of surgeries. We fervently hope that this short week will be the start of a lasting partnership.

The Cancer Institute in Santa Cruz is the first and, until recently, the only public hospital in Bolivia dedicated solely to cancer. It is perpetually overwhelmed in its attempt to serve the needs not only of cancer patients in Eastern Bolivia (population: three million) but of those who come from every corner of the country to access radiation therapies, surgeries, and other treatments unique to this hospital. It is the proud home of many of Bolivia's preeminent cancer specialists, who struggle to provide the treatments they know their patients need but lack necessary surgical instruments and equipment, medications, and other supplies and tools. That is where we hope to step in—to help equip and further empower these dedicated professionals so they can fulfill their vocations.

Meanwhile, Sunday afternoon is family time in Bolivia. To welcome us into her family, the medical director of the hospital, Dr. Gabriela Antelo, invited everyone to a cookout at her family's country home. Alongside the surgeons, anesthesiologists, and hospital administrators we'd met just hours before, we spent the afternoon tasting locally raised beef, exotic fruits, and typical Bolivian rice with cheese and other delicias. Lunch lasted all the way to dinnertime, when we parted ways in hopes of a good night’s sleep before our early Monday start in the OR.

It is always humbling to be so warmly welcomed by those we serve. We've been here barely a day, but bonds are quickly forming among professional peers and there is excited talk about all the things we will do together in the years to come. As Dr. Malcolm so eloquently reminds us, there should be no borders around our health systems. Rather, everyone everywhere should have access to the same level of care. And it is up to each of us—working in solidarity—to build on that vision.   

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Jodi Grahl is the director of gynecology, general surgery, and pacemaker programs at Solidarity Bridge.

This inaugural Oncological Surgery Mission Trip is a part of our General Surgery Program. Throughout the year, our Bolivian partner surgeons perform gallbladder, hernia, and other general 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.