March 12, 2010

Maine health care professionals often reach out to help the suffering poor

— In his inauguration speech, President Barack Obama has asked us to recognize ''that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.''

It is in that interest of giving that has led many in the medical profession in Maine to volunteer and give freely of their skills, experience and knowledge with no expectation of public acknowledgment or remuneration.

For many health professionals, volunteer medical service defines why they went into medicine: to serve, to heal and to relieve the suffering of patients no matter what their ethnicity or nationality.

In a study of the American College of Surgeons in 2002, half of respondent American surgeons had volunteered internationally in countries with limited health care resources.

There are few professions like medicine where skill sets can be so easily transposed into foreign settings.

For surgeons, it is a humbling experience to work in an environment without the technical amenities to which most of us have become accustomed.

Most settings are health-resource poor and technologically disadvantaged; some settings suffer from lack of basic services like dependable electricity and potable water; almost all suffer from worsening health care manpower inadequacies.

One of the most challenging issues facing developing countries is the international migration of their health care workers to developed countries.

In Haiti, it is estimated that 35 percent of physicians have migrated to the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom. The psychological toll on those physicians who remain in-country and feel isolated is significant.

What a profound difference a helping hand or an encouraging word from a volunteer physician can make to a colleague who toils away day after day under the very worst of conditions, trying to make a difference in his own native country.

Here in Maine, there are many nurses, dentists, physicians and surgeons who give freely of their time and expertise to try and make a difference in the world. They epitomize what it means to be a volunteer. They work under the media radar.

Their efforts do not make sweeping policy changes, and they do not make decisions that affect large numbers of people.

They work patient by patient, but they are passionate about their work, and they believe that even the smallest effort makes a difference in the lives of people who have little or no voice on the world stage.

A case in point is Konbit Sante, a Maine-based volunteer medical partnership founded in 2000. Its mission is simple: to save lives and improve health care in northern Haiti.

Haitians endure some of the world's worst health conditions. Most are malnourished and do not have access to basic health care. Konbit Sante was established with the notion that they could indeed make a difference in the lives of these people.

It is made up of both medical and non-medical volunteers from Maine with expertise in all facets of health care delivery, from surgery to public health, pediatrics, clean water procurement, hospital management, gynecology, infectious disease, electrical systems and more.

It has embraced the concept that its members are guests in Haiti and that ultimately Haitians need to make the hard decisions about their own health care direction and destiny.

It is a well-known and respected volunteer medical organization in Haiti precisely because members have offered a helping hand with no preconditions.

Most people would agree that compassion is a quality they would like to see in their physicians. From its Latin root, it means to ''suffer with'' or be sympathetic to someone. For most health care workers, it is a fine line to be sympathetic to someone else's suffering without being consumed by it.

Likewise, the line between objective decision-making and callousness to another's pain and suffering is not that large a chasm. Most of us in health care know that we could all too easily be on the receiving end of care at any point in our lives.

International volunteer medical work is hard work on multiple levels. It is emotionally and physically exhausting.

The next time you visit your health professional, ask them what they do for volunteer work. You may be surprised at the breadth of their experience and their passion for what they do.

Mainers and their health care providers are no strangers to rolling up their sleeves and helping others, particularly those ''from away.''

— Special to the Press HeraldHaitians endure some of the world's worst health conditions.

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