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ReSurge and ASSH Volunteers Share Their Experiences from Bolivia

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In May of this year, a medical team of hand surgeons and hand therapists traveled with ReSurge, in partnership with American Society for Surgery of the Hand, to La Paz, Bolivia to offer free surgeries to those suffering from a hand injury or deformity.

The need was great. Many people traveled from long distances to get help. In Bolivia, there is a high rate of syndactyly, where children are born with one or more fingers or toes fused together. For adults, manual labor is fundamental, with people working on farms, in factories, or in mines. But with this work comes a number of hand injuries, which can leave people unable to take care of their families.

Despite being a country of 12 million people, Bolivia only has one fellowship-trained hand surgeon, Dr. Jorge Terrazas. Dr. Terraza is a ReSurge International Medical Partner which means we partner with him to develop ongoing year-round programs that meet the needs of his local community.

The trip in May was a huge success, with over 150 people seen and over 70 surgeries performed. Many that were not eligible for surgeries were seen by the hand therapists on site.

Here are the stories of three of our volunteers from the surgical mission team:

Dr. Aaron Grand, Hand Surgeon

Hand surgery is really important for everyone, everywhere.  The hands are our way of interacting with the world.  Even a relatively minor injury, if untreated (or treated incorrectly), can result in severe limitations in our ability to function.  Being able to make a hand functional gives these kids (and adolescents and adults) the opportunity to use that hand for school, training, or any type of work in the future.  It allows them to care for themselves and even support a family. 

Given the need in Bolivia, there is only so much Dr. Jorge Terrazas can do. We were happy to be there to help provide the support he needs to help those in need. In the time we were there, we performed over 70 surgeries. 

The hospital in La Paz, Bolivia, is relatively rudimentary, but very functional.  Dr. Terrazas, his team, and all the doctors and nurses there do a great job of working with what they have to help their patients.  I was glad to be able to help by applying my surgical experience to a population which is truly in need and truly grateful for everything we could do.  

This was my first trip with ReSurge, but I hope it is only one of many.

Mary Oswald, Hand Therapist

This was my first surgical mission trip and what an amazing experience!  Ironically, back in 1983 –1985 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I brought kids with cleft palate and cleft lip from our village to Azoges , Ecuador, to see the surgeons from Interplast for surgery.  They left a huge impression on me; they worked so hard and saw so many kids and made huge impacts on peoples’ lives. I didn’t know until I was accepted into ReSurge’s mission trip that ReSurge used to be Interplast!   

Dr. Terrazas and his team were all fantastic.  We especially worked with the Bolivian therapists, especially Nini who continues to send us at least weekly updates and videos on What’s App of our patients progress, which has been so fantastic to see.   

I especially appreciated the way that the ReSurge crew and Bolivian crew worked so well together.  It was something that I think ReSurge should be very proud of; the surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, were constantly teaching, but in a very mutually respectful way.  No condescension whatsoever.  Professional to professional.   

There were so many interesting people who we met as patients during our time there, but my mind really goes to the story of Jaqueline, a lovely woman who had been stabbed by her ex-husband 15 years ago. The brutal attack landed her in the hospital for over a year, ending her journalism career. She had to re-learn to walk, and had a horrible brachial plexus injury to her left arm resulting in no use of the extremity.  

While I was working with her, we had a very personal conversation where she explained that her husband was not in jail, having bribed the local authorities. This is apparently quite common. I suggested that maybe there was something she could do to make what happened to her turn into something positive. The following week, she returned to our clinic to bring me a present and to tell me that she had been thinking about it and was going to start writing again about domestic violence and corruption. 

Nina Healy, Hand Therapist

I have been a therapist since the mid 1970’s.  I am in the twilight of my career, affording me the gift of time so that I can donate my services on medical mission trips. This is my third surgical mission trip with ReSurge International and my second with The Touching Hands Project of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. I had the honor of visiting India with ReSurge in December 2018 and Bolivia in May of 2018 and 2019. 

What I found in both India and Bolivia was an overwhelming appreciation from the people. Both the patients and the medical communities in each country were gracious, warm and welcoming. Our visiting teams worked collaboratively with the local teams, reaching out to patients who might otherwise not have been able to access the therapy and surgical care they needed. When we made a splint for a patient, or showed them either an exercise or a technique that made it possible to accomplish a task that they couldn’t perform previously, eyes would light up and connections were made! 

The patients I’ve encountered on these trips frequently have more severe and varied needs in terms of injuries or afflictions. In India, about 90% of the cases we saw were burn injuries. I spent most of my day working with burn victims to help reduce their contractures with exercise and splinting or by fabricating splints to protect the skin grafts they had just received in surgery.  

In La Paz, Mary and I worked with a wider variety of diagnoses, treating almost 100 patients with everything from congenital defects, arthritis,burns, auto accidents, to knife wounds. The electrical systems in Bolivia and India can be unpredictable and there is a prevalence of burn injuries from electricity. These electrical burns can have devastating effects. 

My first surgical mission trip was to Bolivia with ASSH and ReSurge International in 2018. It was rewarding for me to return a year later and see a number of familiar faces, both patients and staff.. One patient I saw on both trips was Rita. Last year she had a surgical repair to tendons in her hand after lacerating it with a knife while cooking. Rita is the sole provider for her family and has a good job in an office.  Her hand injury made it impossible for her to perform her typing duties at work. After her surgery in 2018 to repair her cut tendons I worked with her two times a day for eight days. She improved but still had limited motion in her hand. When Rita walked in to the triage area this May, we immediately recognized each other. She had returned for follow-up surgery to free up the repaired tendons. Her surgery, in the care of our skilled hand surgeons went well, and she was diligent in participating in therapy.  When we left she was well on her way to returning to being able to type again. 

The days are not easy on these trips. We typically work 10-12 hours a day. But it is by far the most rewarding experience.  Someone once said that “when a disparate yet dedicated group of people come together for a common goal, magic happens.” That was true on this trip. The coordinators made our days smooth and work possible, the translators made communication with our patients and team meaningful, the nurses were competent and caring, the physicians, surgeons and anesthesiologists were amongst the most technically competent and gracious I’ve encountered. This team was exceptional to work with!  My next mission is to Bangladesh with ReSurge and I can’t wait.

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