Embracing the Joys and Challenges of Medical Mission Trips

It’s been over two years since Molly Wright, DNP, CRNA, of Jackson, Tennessee, has been able to serve on a medical mission trip due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To say she’s anxious for the opportunity to return to Guatemala, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic and care for those less fortunate is perhaps the understatement of the year.

“Doing mission work touches my heart and soul like nothing else,” said Molly, a veteran of numerous humanitarian excursions to the aforementioned countries. Since her first medical mission in 2007, she has donated her expertise, PTO, and financial resources to participate on trips as often as 3-4 times per year. That ended in 2020 when COVID hit. “I had Guatemala trips canceled in 2020 and ’21,” she said, noting that there currently seems to be far fewer volunteer opportunities available except through organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse or Doctors Without Borders.

A CRNA since 1994, Molly went into nursing with the goal of becoming a CRNA. “I was a single parent and a friend of mine was a CRNA,” she said. “I knew that career would provide for myself and my two babies!” Unbeknownst to Molly on her way to becoming a CRNA, her extensive background as an ICU nurse and two years spent as a surgical nurse would be put to good use along with her anesthesia expertise on the medical mission trips that were the furthest thing from her mind at the time.

Molly became interested in mission trips in general around 2000. “My first trips were with our church where we would have Bible School and build a small church for the community,” she recalled. “I loved the travel and going to places where people were underserved in so many ways.” But after her first medical mission trip in 2007, she never looked back. “It is always such a joy to provide medical care for people in countries where they don’t have access to medications and hygiene items and where I can just answer basic diet/health questions for them.”

From a case standpoint, Molly said she has never ceased to be astonished by some of the medical conditions people live with for years because they can’t afford to have surgery. “Hernias the size of cantaloupes, hydroceles the size of softballs…it truly leaves me speechless,” she said. “Because we provide surgery and anesthesia for free, we are able to help so many people in poor, underserved areas.  A community will send out a car that has a loudspeaker system on top of it, and they talk into a microphone and go around the town advertising that the Americanos are coming on a certain date.  Word spreads like wildfire!”

Molly explained that shortly after arrival the medical team will see patients preoperatively on a Sunday afternoon and plan the operating room schedule for the week ahead. “Patients are then divided evenly throughout the week, always allowing for one or two add-ons each day,” she said. “We also unload our supplies and get the ORs in working order for the week.” On her many medical mission trips, Molly has provided anesthesia for procedures such as hernia repairs, cholecystectomies, breast biopsies, excision of masses, hysterectomies, and hydroceles, just to name a few.

During a typical day Molly and her colleagues will arrive early in the morning and meet the first patient with an interpreter, start their IV, and explain how their day will go. Once in surgery the appropriate anesthetics are provided, and when the procedure is over the anesthesia professional might also provide the postoperative care or leave the patient with an RN from the mission team to provide that care.  The patient’s family stays with them in recovery until it is time to go home.

Ask Molly to pick a “most memorable experience” and she gushes, “Oh gosh, I have so many! I literally could talk for hours about all the adventures shared with friends and former students.” She delights in recalling simple acts of kindness done for the traveling healthcare professionals and by them for the people in the communities they go to serve—the truest form of ‘paying it forward’ there is. “There have been so many times when we have arrived at an airport and the airline checked our bags for free because they heard we were going on a mission trip,” she said. “And it is common for those of on the mission trip to bring shoes and clothes to leave behind for the community.  I have a picture of a woman who got my old, worn-out tennis shoes and she was grinning from ear to ear.  They were a treasure to her.  What a lesson for me and my materialistic ways!”

But it’s the stories of patient care that stay with Molly the most. “One time we had a baby born by c-section in the OR where only Dominican healthcare providers were working,” Molly said. “The baby had meconium aspiration and the very young under-trained nurses took it to the baby bed and didn’t know what to do.  So we went to help and the baby’s pulse was very weak and it wasn’t breathing.  We suctioned and intubated the baby and did a few compressions and it came around and pinked up.  The next day we went to see it and what a gorgeous baby it was! There are so many stories just like this one!”

Molly expressed a desire to see more healthcare professionals, especially CRNAs, volunteer for mission trips once the pandemic is over. The experience is unforgettable, she said, and the need is greater than the number of volunteers willing to participate.

“When I get off the plane, wherever the mission trip is, my heart always feels ‘at home,’” Molly reflected. “Hearing people talk in another language, feeling the tropical temperature, seeing the smiles of the local people, and knowing we are there to provide something those people so desperately need…nothing can replace that. NOTHING!

“We need to get our focus off ourselves way more than we do.  Putting our focus on helping others in an environment where maybe we feel a little uncomfortable is healthy,” she said, adding that as highly educated healthcare professionals it is also good to experience providing anesthesia “without all of the comforts of home.”

“It makes us better providers when we meet the challenge of giving anesthesia without all of the monitors we are used to; it forces us to rely on our eyes and ears and remember how to use different medications,” Molly said. “Not only that, on a mission trip you might do anesthesia for one case and then circulate the next!  You might sew up an incision, scrub and pass instruments, or wash and sterilize instruments.  You become resourceful and really dependent on each other to take the best possible care of the patients.”

For Molly Wright, her next trip won’t come soon enough.

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