Then and Now: General Surgery
In honor of our 20th Anniversary, we are taking a look back at how some of our programs started, and where they are today. This month, we reflect on our General Surgery Program.
Solidarity Bridge stands firm in the belief—shared by the Catholic Church, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations—that health care is a basic human right. We further believe that surgery is an essential part of universal health care. Together with our sister organization, Puente de Solidaridad, and our Bolivian medical partners, we are committed to increasing access to safe, timely, and affordable surgical care for our brothers and sisters in Bolivia. One way we do this is through our General Surgery Program. This program consists of both mission trips and an on-going year round program administered by Puente de Solidaridad and the Bolivian medical professionals with whom we have partnered.
Solidarity Bridge has been involved in general surgery since our very first mission trip in 1999. In 2008, we conducted our first dedicated mission trip in this specialty. This specialized trip allowed us to respond to the input of our Bolivian partners seeking more advanced training in minimally invasive surgeries. We also procured a donation of specialized laparoscopic instruments that were delivered on this trip, and are crucial to the sustainability of this work.
Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure. It is an expected standard throughout the United States, offering shorter recovery times, shorter hospital stays, and fewer opportunities for complications. As a result, hospitals can serve more patients and increase access to surgical care for those in need. Solidarity Bridge is making a sustainable impact on the Bolivian health system and its patients through the strategic provision of laparoscopic training, equipment, and supplies to public hospitals.
In 2014, our Bolivian peers took an exciting leap forward in the development of our General Surgery Program. They began their own series of mobile surgery campaigns, expanding our model of mission. Traveling to smaller, often remote hospitals, these Bolivian doctors now bring training and equipment to doctors and hospitals serving patients who are unable to travel to central urban areas. Today the majority of our program surgeries happen through these mobile surgery campaigns, led by Bolivian surgeons and equipped by the donors of Solidarity Bridge.
While we have seen our training in laparoscopic surgery take root and expand throughout the country, provision of surgical equipment and supplies remains a top priority for our program. In 2018, Solidarity Bridge helped to secure the donation of a laparoscopic tower and instruments through a partnership between Rotary International, Solidarity Bridge, Puente de Solidaridad and the Viedma Hospital. The Viedma Hospital is the main public hospital in the province of Cochabamba, and serves thousands of patients each year. This equipment greatly improves their capacity to provide minimally invasive surgical care.
Today, building on our remarkable progress with minimally invasive procedures, our US mission teams are now shifting their focus to respond to increasingly complex needs. In recent years we have partnered with hospitals in Santa Cruz to provide training in complex esophageal, colon, and cancer procedures. Training in these highly complex cases involves close, trusting partnerships with our Bolivian peers. It is challenging work, but the dedication of our partners and the transformation of our patients inspire us to continue.
One such patient was 32-year-old Victor. Like a number of our patients, Victor suffered from Chagas, a parasitic disease prevalent among the low-income population of Bolivia. Advanced Chagas disease can affect the heart, esophagus, or colon. For some, such as Victor, it may affect two or more of these organs. In 2009, surgeons removed a diseased portion of his colon. After a long recovery, Victor was able to return to his job operating heavy construction equipment. But after a number of years, he began to struggle to swallow food. His doctors discovered that the Chagas parasite had destroyed his lower esophagus, making it impossible to pass food. When our mission team met him, Victor was subsisting on a liquid diet, losing weight at an alarming rate, and was too weak to work. His prognosis without surgery was dire, and he had a new baby—his second child—on the way.
Thanks to our strong partnerships with the local medical community, Victor’s surgeon, Dr. Aponte was able to reach out and request support from Solidarity Bridge. Informed of Victor’s case, we prepared to bring the instruments needed to perform a complex laparoscopic esophageal procedure on our next mission trip. After surgery, Victor was overjoyed to have recovered his ability to swallow. The US and Bolivian doctors closely monitored his recovery, and after five days he was sent home on a diet of soft food, transitioning to regular food within six weeks. Two years later, he reunited with our mission team to share his gratitude and introduce his young family to his US surgeon.
Our General Surgery Program is one of four year-round surgical programs that connects the desire of US and Bolivian medical professionals to offer healing care to patients in need. Through the hundreds of patients we have helped in this program we have learned that surgery not only saves a life, but also strengthens families and communities.