n 2009, six years after retiring from his 35-year career as a urologist, Dr. Dick Thompson found himself practicing a very different kind of medicine. Due to a friend's description of a medical mission to rural Guatemala, he signed on with Partner for Surgery and a trip into the unknown.
Retired Naval architect Frank Peterson began Partner for Surgery in 2009. Teams travel for five-day missions throughout a portion of rural Guate-mala, screening patients who need surgery.
Six months later, his wife, Johanna, a practicing registered nurse in the post-operative section of the surgery center at Kaiser Permanente, joined a Free to Smile team in Guatemala, which served 56 patients.
Dick and Johanna Thompson leave the comfort of their Kula home to participate in medical mission work around the world.
Since then, the Thompsons have each gone on three separate missions. At this point, they're both sold on the sense of purpose, camaraderie and service they experience, providing help for the people most in need.
But Dick wasn't convinced right away.
Over 300 people typically line up for screenings, but only 30 to 50 are selected. These few must wait up to a year for the right team that can perform the particular surgery they need.
For Dick, seeing so many people who needed medical attention he could not offer was tremendously difficult. As well, those in greatest need weren't chosen, as the limits of selection were those who could be in and out of the clinic in one week. Having spent his life providing healing and relief for his patients, Dick found screening a necessary but frustrating experience.
"I didn't have the satisfaction of knowing I had really helped the patients," explained Dick.
On all of their missions, Dick and Johanna paid for their own travel expenses, lodging and food. Johanna uses her vacation time from Kaiser for her trips. The medical mission organizations raise money through donations that goes directly to healthcare for patients.
Free to Smile, founded by Byron Henry, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, serves people in rural Guatemala, Cambodia and Tibet who have cleft lips and cleft palettes, and offers dental work for the whole family.
"In the U.S.," Johanna explained, "cleft lips and palettes are identified and treated in infancy. In developing countries like Guatemala, children don't get that repair. They suffer from malnutrition because they can't suck and nurse, they have trouble speaking and being understood, and they are ostracized for their physical difference. Their lives are extremely difficult due to this relatively minor impairment. Unfortunately, the rural Mayan native peoples are underserved by the stretched healthcare services available to them."
Each of Johanna's three missions has been with, by in large, the same 21 Free To Smile volunteers. Johanna describes the commitment of the team as "phenomenal."
"There are no egos," she said. "Everyone works so hard on his/her own task, but also on finding the very best way to work together and help each other. Byron welcomes all suggestions and follows up with improvements from trip to trip. It's absolutely addictive to work with this kind of team spirit."
Most patients are under 3 years old--often at very low weight due to the difficulty of eating and sucking. Within a week, their lives drastically change for the better.
The good news about these medical missions is spread through word-of-mouth, and a team of local health promoters keeps track of those who have been screened, teams that are coming for surgery, who is providing transportation, translating for English, Spanish and Mayan speakers, and keeping each mission on schedule. Flyers and radio announcements promote the screening, such as Dick provided, resulting in the crowds that come seeking help.
Dick's second trip gave him the opportunity to assist in the surgeries. With Project Hands, a medical mission group that has been operating in Guatemala since 2007, Dick was able to use his professional skills, assisting in hysterectomies, hernia repairs and laparoscopic gall bladder surgery.
"This time it was fun," said Dick. "Surgeons usually think surgery is fun. My training and skills were needed, and I could actually be part of the healing."
Dick, like Johanna, found his team cohesive, supportive and dedicated. From then on, he knew he wanted to go again.
Both Thompsons described the quiet and trusting nature of the patients and their families. Some families must walk three hours to catch the bus to the school or clinic where the surgeries will be performed. They endure the long lines, hand over their children to strangers, and listen intently to the after-care instructions for their care.
Johanna will go for her fourth trip in January, again using her vacation time to make the trip possible.
Dick, past president and long-time treasurer of the Rotary Club of Upcountry Maui, most recently traveled to the Philippines earlier this year to renovate a girls' orphanage for a Rotary project. This, too, scratched the service itch he experiences to help the poor in other countries.
The Thompsons are not alone on Maui. Many people quietly travel to developing countries to lend a hand. And judging from this Kula couple's stories, service mission trips are a thoroughly rewarding way to spend one's vacation.