12-hour shifts for volunteers
Over the eight days of surgery, working 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later most days, Dr. Daneker and the other volunteer surgeons performed more than 135 major surgeries, ranging from simple hernia operations to more complex intra-abdominal and cancer surgeries. More than 800 patients were seen during this visit by the teams of surgeons, plastic surgeons, gynecologists, anesthetists, primary care physicians, advanced practitioners, nurses and translators.
Although appointments were made months in advance, a long line of additional people hoping for extra openings formed each day that the team was on site. In addition to the heavy clinical demand, physicians had to contend with several environmental challenges, including a weak power grid that occasionally forced them to operate with illumination provided only by the light from cellphones.
The volunteer physicians regularly faced a wide range of medical issues, some often too complex for them to tackle onsite with the lack of sophisticated equipment or laboratory and radiology services. Disabling hernias, gynecologic maladies, facial malformations, burns and even advanced cancers were among the more common situations.
Dr. Daneker recalls on a prior trip being part of the team removing a nine-pound ovarian tumor from a woman who began to lose a lot of blood after surgery. Without a local blood bank, they had to quickly recruit volunteer blood donors and transfuse the blood without the safety of cross-matching. “We had no choice in order to save her life,” he recalled. “There’s really no safety net. There are no stat labs, no ventilators and no critical care facilities. After a return to the OR, she walked out of the hospital a week later. We are grateful it turned out so well.”
Another aspect of the resource limitations was patient selection. “Some of the cases we see could be easily fixed in the United States, but without proper resources there, we can’t take the risk,” he added, reflecting on Angel, a young boy with severe burn scars that caused his chin to be fused to his chest. “Dr. Tom Grace, the plastic surgeon, was worried that the anesthetist wouldn’t be able to get a tube down to ventilate him for surgery. He made the right decision in deciding not to operate.” The story ends well, though: Angel was referred to a specialty hospital in the nearest large city, where he subsequently underwent a successful surgery (funded by volunteer donations and raised funds).
Daneker described the patients he saw as among the poorest of the poor, often wearing sandals made from tires and traveling for days on foot, by donkey or bus to get to the hospital and compound. “We got laughs from patients when we asked them such routine questions like, ‘Do you smoke or drink?’ because they don’t have the money for such luxuries.”
Giving back to those in need
Volunteers on these missions pay their own way and rely entirely on medical supplies and equipment donated by hospitals and other organizations. Many even hold personal fundraisers to help defray costs.
“My teammates are wonderful, caring people committed to a life of service,” Dr. Daneker stated about his colleagues on the trip. He pointed out that this was GHV’s 27th surgical mission to Peru. “This organization runs so well; I’ll go back, because I know my time will be well invested and my skills used to their fullest. I also want to let others know that there is always a need for other medical professionals on trips like these. There are many opportunities for those who want to give back.”
He explained that the needs on these trips are in all areas, including non-direct patient care jobs like pharmacy, medical records, administration and even warehouse support. For example, Dr. Daneker’ wife, Bonnie, a professional writer, contributed on a trip by journaling the events, distributing health and wellness information and supporting the medical team members. She traveled to remote mountain villages, where women often start having children at a very young age. She recalls meeting one woman who was pregnant with twins, her 21st pregnancy. She required transport to the city for the obstetrical care she needed to ensure a safe delivery. “One of the most important missions of these trips is to teach people how to care for themselves,” said Bonnie. “Health education is critical.”
Back at home, Bonnie participates in a wide range of volunteer activities, hosts events to raise funds for various organizations and helps recruit others, especially her adult sons, to join her in service. The Danekers both believe that “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
“We need to show our gratitude in our actions,” said Dr. Daneker.