Then & Now: Gynecology Program

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 Gynecologic Surgery Program.

Fanny, with mission surgeon, Dr. Bob LaPata

Fanny, with mission surgeon, Dr. Bob LaPata

In the mid 2000’s, Fanny lived in a two-room house with her two teenage grandchildren. She supported her small family as a street vendor, selling pastries. However, a long-term and increasingly debilitating problem with incontinence was restricting her ability to work and provide for her grandchildren. She had been putting off this problem for years. Like many women throughout Bolivia, and mothers around the world, Fanny encountered multiple barriers to caring for her own health. 

Gynecological care has been part of Solidarity Bridge mission trips since our second trip, back in 2000. Women, especially mothers, often suffer in silence, with abnormal bleeding, tumors or fibroids, pelvic organ prolapse, urinary incontinence, and other health problems—sometimes related to multiple childbirths. Through their experiences on our early mission trips, Dr. Robert LaPata and Dr. Enrique Via-Reque heard from their Bolivian peers and saw for themselves the tremendous need in this specialty. Building upon the partnerships developed through our multi-specialty mission trips, they led the first trip dedicated solely to gynecologic surgery in 2008. During that trip, 31 women, including Fanny, received surgery. Our Bolivian peers⁠—physicians, nurses, medical students, and administrators⁠—also received training on surgical and nonsurgical management of urinary incontinence.

From these specialized trips, our year-round gynecologic surgery program developed and formally launched in 2012. The program is led by Bolivian gynecologists in Cochabamba. We support their work to care for patients by providing training in advanced techniques and facilitating the distribution of the latest instruments and equipment donated by corporate and individual supporters.

According to Jodi Grahl, program director, “The big challenge of this program is reaching our target patients, low-income, post-reproductive age women. It takes a lot to spread the word that treatment is available and empower women to seek care.” Our partner, Puente de Solidaridad (PdS) identifies those most in need through active outreach campaigns organized jointly with local partner hospitals. PdS social workers visit with women in target communities to educate them on their options and to encourage them to seek treatment.

Daniela (left) with Dr. Janet Tomezsko andsocial worker, Marisol

Daniela (left) with Dr. Janet Tomezsko andsocial worker, Marisol

The health issues that we addressed in the early days of the Gynecological Surgery Program still exist for many low-income women in Bolivia. In 2017, our team met Daniela, a woman who had suffered for years from pelvic organ injuries she had accrued giving birth to fourteen children. She lived in a rural community far from the urban medical centers. She did not know what treatment she needed, nor did she have the financial resources to seek it. This changed when she met the PdS social worker and learned about our upcoming mission trip.

After many years of seeing her put their needs before her own, Daniela’s husband and children wanted her to receive the best care possible. They encouraged her to proceed with surgery. “We want whatever is best for her... we just want her to be well.” In October 2017, Bolivian surgeon, Dr. José Luis Choque, and US missioner, Dr. Janet Tomezsko, performed pelvic reconstructive surgery to restore her health.

Through our partnership with Puente de Solidaridad, Daniela, Fanny, and dozens of other women have received the medical care they needed to restore their health and quality of life.

Today our goal is to continue improving the lives of women like Fanny and Daniela. Access to basic care has improved in Bolivia, and our partners are eager to build on their training and advance to ever more complex procedures. Responding to their requests, we’ve recently sent mission teams to work with Bolivian gynecologists at the country's only two public cancer centers. Through these new hospital partnerships, our missioners have been invited to offer training in women’s cancer treatments and other advanced gynecologic surgeries. We look forward to continuing to work alongside our peers in the coming years to advance the health and quality of life for women across Bolivia.