A Scarborough woman helps improve Panamanians’ hearing during a recent medical mission trip.

Karen Kirtani, of Scarborough, recently took the trip of a lifetime when she went on a mission trip to Panama City, Panama.

Kirtani, a hearing equipment specialist, works at the local Beltone clinic and joined a group of volunteers from Beltone New England when they went to Panama in mid-January.

The Beltone volunteers went to Central America with an organization called Northeast VOSH, which stands for Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity.

VOSH sends optometrists, medical doctors, nurses, physical therapists, dentists, opticians and other medical providers to various places around the world to provide needed care to those who cannot afford or obtain it.

According to Beltone New England, the most recent mission was a “huge success” with more than 114 patients screened and 150 hearing aids fitted.

Many of the locals traveled for hours see the VOSH volunteers, who were there at the invitation of the El Dorado Rotary Club, with many waiting all day to be seen or even returning on multiple days to get their turn.

Kirtani, who was raised in Scarborough and has lived in town most of her life, has two small children, 4 and 1. She is a nationally board certified hearing instrument specialist and runs the Scarborough clinic for Beltone New England.

Kirtani has always wanted to take a mission trip so when this opportunity arose she grabbed it. Last week she spoke with the Current about her experience.

Q: Why did you want to go on the mission trip to Panama?

A: I have always wanted to do missionary work, so when I got this chance I took it. For a hearing impaired person, being fit to a hearing aid literally changes that person’s life and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help. The mission had only one hearing specialist and hundreds of hearing aids to fit, so when I heard they were short-handed, I knew this was the time for me to step up.

Q: What were your impressions of the other volunteers?

A: The other volunteers were so welcoming. One of my favorite aspects of the trip was working with and personally getting to know the doctors, nurses and interpreters, who also came along.

I feel I made friends for life. Here you are, thrown into this intense environment with all of these different personalities, but we were all working toward the same goal.

The other volunteers were a very smart, fun, interesting, dedicated and extremely compassionate group of people. It’s a tight-knit group that I feel proud to have been a part of and I can’t wait to see them all again.

Q: What surprised you about the patients you saw?

A: The patients we saw were so nice and relaxed. Most had to wait all day and some even had to return a second day to get their hearing aids. They didn’t care about the long wait. They were just grateful for the help and to receive the gift of hearing better.

Q: What inspired you about the patients you saw?

A: We were able to fit young children, who were born with hearing loss but had never worn hearing aids and that was exciting. With hearing aids, many of these kids would be able to hear clearly in school for the first time.

Q: Do you get a chance to leave Panama City at all? If so, where did you go and what was your favorite place?

A: Most of our time was spent at the mission site and our hotel, which was about 2.5 hours outside of the city. We did travel to a local village up in the mountains, though, and the scenery was gorgeous. Panama is very green and lush.

Q: Would you encourage others to take a mission trip like this?

A: If you have any interest in going on a mission and get a chance, just do it! It’s a fantastic experience, especially if you like to travel and learn about other cultures.

Q: Do you think this trip will change your life in terms of how you live?

A: This trip allowed me to use my skills and technical expertise on a whole other level than my day-to-day work in the office. We saw more complex cases. We treated people with various mental and physical disabilities that I don’t usually deal with here in the U.S. Even the equipment setup was different.

We were manufacturing custom-fit earmolds on site. Plus, I had to train the team of eight volunteers how to do everything from wax removal to hearing tests to taking ear impressions. I have been testing hearing and fitting hearing aids for so long, sometimes I forget what a complex process it is. Each case is different.

It takes years of experience to learn what to do in each case. So in returning home, I felt I shouldn’t take all my years of experience for granted.

Q: What have you told family and friends about the trip and its impact on you personally?

A: I left my 3-year-old son and my 9-month-old baby at home with my husband to go on this mission. Even though it was hard to leave them, I felt compelled to go and help the people of Panama. I am so glad I went.

Q: What do you most enjoy about your job?

A: I love the people. Many of the patients have been coming to me for 10 years or more. They become like family. I often see husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, and friends and neighbors. They know my family and me and I know theirs.

Karen Kirtani of Scarborough works at the local Beltone clinic, and went on a recent mission to Panama City.Scarborough’s Karen Kirtani, who works at the local Beltone clinic, on a recent mission trip to Panama City where she helped outfit those in need with hearing aids, including Elvis Rodriguez, 12. Courtesy photo

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