Bringing vital medical care to St. Lucia’s underserved

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is seemingly simple: we are to join forces with another non-profit group in order to deliver medical care to those that need it most on St. Lucia, a West Indian island nation variously colonized by the English and French, with Arawak and Carib roots. It will be our inaugural trip to this Caribbean idyll and our first collaboration with another non-profit, but it will be our second venture as the Women in Medicine arm of Integrative Clinics International (ICI), a Los Angeles-based non-profit supporting medical mission work for more than two decades.

ICI has been sending dedicated teams to Falmouth, Jamaica at least twice a year, providing medical and dental care to the surrounding population since 2001. Our sub-group, Women in Medicine, developed organically after our co-leaders met on a joint mission trip to Jamaica and bonded over shared interests in medicine, travel, and family.

We are both physicians working in large, urban settings; the fast-paced and high-stakes world of emergency rooms and urgent cares are where we ply our trade. Since our work days are typically taken up with chest pains, abdominal pains, depression, and anxiety — not to mention a recent pandemic — we quickly jump at the chance to cast off for a new shore. Suddenly we both feel recharged and renewed, and we haven’t even left.

During our last trip, we had the serendipitous good fortune to gather together the finest group of care providers we could ever hope for. So we hastily compose a few emails to our group stating our new directive and our intent to take a week off from current obligations—both professional and familial—and re-focus our volunteer efforts with St. Lucia, now clearly in sight. And, just as quickly, we received replies back: a resounding, “Yes, I will come! Count me in!” was heard from nearly every former participant. Now, on a mission from ICI, fortified with anticipation, excitement, exceptionally good nurses, and an irreplaceable logistician, we start putting the band back together.

We are, as the iconic Gen X movie The Breakfast Club paints it, a variation on “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” Truth be told, we can all lay claim to being at least partial brains, and we harbor no criminals in our ranks. But we also have a former junior Olympic roller skater in our midst; some of us may or may not be on mood stabilizers, though we are too polite to ask, and the St. Lucian Minister of Health himself proclaimed one of our nurses a Caribbean princess. While we are all at various stages in our careers, the beauty of our group—and what brings us all together again for a second medical mission to parts unknown—is the abiding care, compassion, respect, and love that we feel not only for our patients but for each other as well. This last point, in particular, we believe, has proven itself key to achieving a successful and restorative mission trip.

For instance, we encountered multiple challenges during the months leading up to our trip, in addition to unforeseen circumstances on the ground that might have discouraged a less cohesive group. Confusion about the anticipated protocol for medication dispensing, profuse and redundant red tape during the credentialing process, and differing expectations regarding the roles of each non-profit group were a few of the complicating issues that arose on this trip. Rather than feeling defeated, however, we buoyed one another up when we felt overwhelmed, and we championed the beauty in all that we were able to accomplish, both individually and as a group.

Another defining characteristic of our group is the curiosity and desire to step out of our comfort zones. While providing quality care to the underserved is what drives our missions, we are also committed to expanding our knowledge of the host country’s history and culture. This is central to our trips, and helps us frame our “work” as “pleasure.” For example, pre-St. Lucia, we shared links to current events in newspaper articles, poems by the Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, and ideas for excursions we hoped to go on. We also “branded” our trip, further confirming our group identity: one physician was able to procure scrubs donated by a female-founded company; one nurse silkscreened tank tops with our group logo; and another physician mailed out a small “party-in-a-box,” which festively included a recipe for that classic rum drink, the daiquiri.

Having traveled with the same group to Jamaica pre-COVID, we all had the easy camaraderie that comes with meeting up after a long absence; laughter and tears both flowed easily. We caught up on each others’ work lives and personal lives, trading stories of life in the ER and urgent care, GI and IR, and even administration. We shared trade secrets on how to (somewhat) successfully raise teenagers, how to navigate romantic relationships, and how to sustain a sense of control amidst health concerns. We talked about it all.

Our medical mission trip was a success twice over. We gave of ourselves and we received. We met with and treated the underserved in two different St. Lucian communities, helping to alleviate a small portion of the overall health burden for the local providers. We also revisited and reinforced mutual feelings of love and respect within both our professional relationships and our friendships. This trip was the restorative balm we all so desperately needed. Even though we volunteered our time, services, and vacation days, we received so much more in return, from both the beautiful country of St. Lucia and from each other. Hollywood could not have written a better ending than that.

Belen Gallarza-Wilson is a family physician. Lisa Sanders is an emergency medicine physician.

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