Medical professionals recount experiences volunteering abroad

Gary Kean
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CORNER BROOK  The experience of volunteering in areas of the world devastated by poverty, natural disasters or the unfortunate combination of both can be rewarding and gut-wrenching all at once.

David Buckle, Western Health’s regional director of paramedicine and medical transport, spent two weeks in Haiti in early 2011 as part of a 10-person team of medical professionals who volunteered to go help the people there still reeling from a major earthquake.

Tuesday evening, a panel of medical professionals from the Corner Brook area who have had that experience came together to discuss their experiences abroad.

For one of the panelists, David Buckle, it was a visit to a hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti, one year after the impoverished island nation was hit by a major earthquake, that will remain a poignant memory of his time there.

Buckle is Western Health’s regional director of paramedicine and medical transport and spent two weeks in Haiti in early 2011 as part of a 10-person team of medical professionals who volunteered to go help the people there still reeling from the earthquake’s effect.

As they walked into the hospital, there was a long line of sick and injured people outside waiting to be helped. Even as they walked past them, more people were being dropped off in cars and trucks.

Inside the hospital, there as no running water and no facilities to make meals for those who were being cared for. People were cooking food on charcoal fires out in the street and bringing meals inside to their loved ones.

“We went into the hospital and they were trying to make do with what they had,” said Buckle in an interview before the panel discussion. “It was very frustrating to see. I’m a paramedic who gets involved in things like that. Basically, all we could do was stand there and watch it.

“That was very disturbing for me.”

Buckle’s team had brought around $6,000 worth of donated medication to give to the hospital.

“They were so appreciative of that, but it seemed so miniscule,” he said. “The need was so overwhelming, it didn’t seem like much.”

Every bit helps

Every little bit helps in those situations. The team did manage to provide around 70 people with vaccinations for cholera, which was a serious problem when they were there.

Before he became a paramedic, Buckle was a finish carpenter. He used those skills in Haiti too, helping renovate three kitchens, including one at an orphanage.

He said the experience has changed his perspective on many things, from a greater appreciation of local government — which he said hardly exists in Haiti — to personal safety. Everywhere they went in Haiti, the group had to be accompanied by security guards.

“I have never felt so close to death at times and I’ve never felt so alive at times either,” said Buckle. “It was a great experience.”

Buckle is currently planning another mission to Haiti. He will be part of a church group from Corner Brook who will be joining forces with two church groups from New Brunswick who are hoping to do a housing project just outside of Port au Prince in April 2014.

Dr. Jim Patriquin, another one of the panelists Tuesday, didn’t have to leave Canada to have one of the first eye-opening experiences of his career. When he was in university studying to be an optometrist, Patriquin was part of a team who travelled to an aboriginal reserve in Northern Ontario on an outreach mission focused on eye care.

One 12-year-old boy with extremely poor vision and who had never had glasses was among those Patriquin saw.

“He basically couldn’t see anything clearly past the end of his nose,” recalled Patriquin. “I will never forget the expression on his face when we gave him a pair of glasses. Later that day, I saw him outside and he was looking at everything: the grass, the trees, the leaves.”

Another profound moment for Patriquin came when he was in Guyana on another outreach mission in 1989. Their much-anticipated arrival was delayed by two days and they were greeted by a huge throng of around 1,000 people, some of whom had walked for three days and then waited an extra two to be seen by an eye doctor.

He recalled one schoolteacher, who was around 45 or 50 years old, and whose sight was so bad she could not read. When she got her glasses, she fell at Patriquin’s feet in gratitude.

After seeing as many people as they could, the trip had to be cut short. Because there were still a lot of people who had not been seen, the team had to steal away secretly to avoid the growing frustrations of those who unfortunately did not get an examination or treatment.

That may have been nearly a quarter century ago, but Patriquin said a huge demand for eye care still exists in many developing countries.

“I don’t think things have changed that much because the need is so great,” he said. “There were two optometrists from my office who spoke last week about doing eye exams in various places, and it didn’t seem to me that the message has changed.”

Twitter: WS_GaryKean

Geographic location: Haiti, Corner Brook, Deschapelles New Brunswick Port Canada Northern Ontario Guyana

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