Aloha Medical Mission Heals the Poor in the Philippines
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Lifeline from Hawaii
Aloha Medical Mission has been providing surgery to poor people throughout Asia and the Pacific.
By Alden Alayvilla
Above, Dr. Lisa Grininger, left, and Dr. Rebecca Sawai, both of Kaiser Permanente on Oahu, tilt their heads to get a better look inside their patient during a hernia operation. On a typical trip by the Aloha Medical Mission, there might be major surgeries involving gall bladders, thyroids, hysterectomies, cleft palates, hernias, breast cancer and other serious conditions.
In the middle photo at left, Krisensha Ramos, the woman with the tumor on her back, stands after successful surgery to remove her lipoma. With Ramos is her surgeon, Dr. Yeu-Tsu Margaret Lee of Oahu, who is still wearing her surgical mask. Moments after being stitched up, Ramos sat up from the operating table with a shy smile and wiped tears from her face. At first she was speechless but eventually found the strength to speak to Lee. “Thank you, Doc,” she said in English.
In America, a hernia operation might cost a patient or his insurance company $15,000. In the Philippines, the price could be a lot less, $500 to $1,000. But everything is relative, says Dr. Bradley Wong.
“A farmer who makes $250 a year can’t afford surgery,” he says. “There’s no way.”
That’s why the work of the Aloha Medical Mission is so valuable, says Wong, who is chairman of the Hawaii nonprofit.
Now in its 24th year, AMM has healed bodies and saved lives in the Philippines and 15 other developing countries, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Micronesia. On 142 overseas trips, AMM says, its volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and other providers have performed more than 21,000 surgeries for free and have helped more than 10,000 patients.
Wong vividly remembers a little boy from Nepal who had bad burns on his arm. When burns heal without treatment, Wong says, the skin sticks together and this boy’s shoulder and elbow were frozen against his chest.
“The (plastic) surgeon who was with us conducted the operation,” Wong recalls from the mission two years ago. “It was a bloody operation. Most of us don’t think these kinds of surgeries go very well. Even the plastic surgeon thought the chances of a successful surgery were very small – maybe they’d get partial movement back. On our recent mission to Nepal, this kid shows up with his father and he was 100 percent recovered, raising his arm up, clapping.”
Over the years, there have been more than 4,600 AMM volunteers and all of them not only donated their time, they paid for their own airfares, food and lodging. Among them are those whom Wong calls “mission addicts.”
“They realize how good it makes them feel. I take 35 people. Of that 35, 10 or 12 have been on missions with me four or five times.”
There are both medical and nonmedical volunteers. “Everyone in our group takes nonmedical, lay people,” Wong says. “They help in the medical room, they clean instruments, wash the gowns, etc. They’re just as essential as the medical volunteers. We really need them.”
In the beginning, nearly everyone was from Hawaii. Now, half of the average crew are from the mainland.
“People come with us and, if they can, bring friends. Word spreads. It’s no longer just a Hawaii-based group. Aloha Medical Mission provides the opportunity for people to do good things. That’s a very powerful vehicle.”
Fundraising events raise money for administrative costs and medical supplies.
Dr. Lisa Grininger, a surgeon at Kaiser Permanente on Oahu, has been volunteering with AMM for 20 years and she says every mission is different, depending on the location and the volunteers who come along.
“A lot of the benefit for us on the mission is you get a really intimate view of the people and the culture, and working together is a really good experience,” Grininger says. “The patients are always very grateful.”
Lifeline for Hawaii
Less well known than Aloha Medical Mission’s overseas trips are its free dental services in Hawaii. For 12 years, AMM has run the only full-time free dental clinic in the Islands, which is located at the Palama Settlement in Kalihi. Each month, volunteers see about 170 patients who have no dental insurance.
AMM’s chairman, Dr. Bradley Wong, says one-third of Hawaii’s adult population has no dental insurance.
“If you have an acute toothache, a problem, an abscess, an infection, sometimes you’ll get into the community health centers, but many times you won’t,” Wong says. “You’ll go to the emergency room and they won’t take care of your tooth. We’re looking for patients to come and see us.”
The Aloha Medical Mission team in Tuguegarao was comprised of 28 volunteers from Hawaii and the U.S. mainland:
- Seven physicians,
- Seven nurses,
- One dentist
- One pharmacist
- One respiratory therapist
- Eight nonmedical volunteers
- Three journalists
The local volunteers from Tuguegarao included 24 physicians, 16 nurses and three dentists.
Unlike in America, two surgeries were often performed at the same time in the same operating room at the hospital in Tuguegarao.
Nonmedical volunteers were vital: They prepared and comforted patients, helped during surgery, cleaned instruments and played many other roles.
Aileen Banatao rests after Caesarean surgery, flanked by her husband and her newborn, Khing Keano Banatao. In gratitude for their help during the operation, the father asked members of the Aloha Medical Mission to name the child. After much discussion, the team settled on Keanu, which was adapted to the local culture by calling the boy Keano.
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