Spring Lake Park High School’s OEC director, along with a group of six other medically trained people, has returned from a health care mission to the Dominican Republic.
Opportunities in Emergency Care director Bill Neiss, a teacher at SLP High School, spearheaded the trip to the island Aug. 11 through 18 where the group set up four makeshift mobile barrio (neighborhood) medical clinics in and near San Juan.
“Basically, it was a mobile pharmacy,” Neiss said about the temporary clinics set up in the countryside and in schools. One was staged in a rickety, old building in the mountains.
Neiss’ entourage comprised his 15-year-old daughter, Rachel; Jessica Bedi and Taylor Hanson, OEC and SLP High School alums; Cassandra Higgins and Nick Maxwell, Spring Lake Park OEC alums and graduates of Totino Grace High School; and Sue Stowell, a nurse from Minneapolis Shriner’s Children’s Hospital.
The Minnesotans were part of a larger 10-member medical group setting up shop to help Dominicans with their health problems. The group included two Dominican doctors and translators.
Neiss estimates the mobile barrio clinics administered to about 175 people a day in two- to five-minute appointments.
Bedi, a 2005 graduate of SLP High School, now a neuroscientist in the Twin Cities, aspires to be a physician some day so that she can help people. The trip cemented her decision.
Among her duties at the barrio clinic, she took patients’ blood pressure, helped dispense medications, weighed children and tested blood glucose levels.
“They’re just so happy that you’re there to have a conversation,” she said of the patients. “They’s so happy that you’re willing to listen… . They don’t get a chance to smile much.”
They waited for two hours
Many people born in the poorer rural areas of Dominican Republic have no record of birth, so they are denied access to health care, according to Neiss.
The patients, ranging in age from a few weeks old to 87, waited patiently in line for up to two hours in 90 degree temperatures to be seen by the medical helpers for mostly chronic complaints. Many were agriculture workers.
Maladies ranged from high blood pressure to diabetes to aches and pains. For relief, the doctors administered pharmaceuticals.
Neiss was particularly taken with the Dominicans’ patience and generosity. He had expected poverty when he headed there, but he hadn’t expected to see lean-tos and shacks, dirt floors, tin roofs, some houses without running water, people living in abject poverty.
“Yet they were just so grateful,” he said. “They would wait for two hours to see the doctor and not a complaint.”
For Neiss, the trip was life-changing.
“I don’t complain as much now. I really see no reason for it,” he said. Especially, because in America people can go to their kitchen cupboards to seek over-the-counter remedies or to the corner local pharmacy.
Cost for the trip was about $1,200 per person and was paid from fund-raisers. Some of the group members volunteered to work emergency medical shifts at such events as Blaine’s Blazin’ 4th or Spring Lake Park’s Tower Days. The SLP Lions Club and Anoka American Legion donated funds. The group sought donations from friends and relatives. Local businesses also pitched in.
The Minnesota group delivered three suitcases of surgical supplies from Mercy Hospital to the Dominican Republic. And a pharmacist at Unity Hospital in Fridley donated 32 scrubs for the trip.
Putting skills to use
Every few years Neiss takes his EMT (emergency medical technician) students or former students on missionary trips. In 2006, he and SLP High School’s former industrial tech teacher Mark Voigt, took a joint volunteer student group on a construction mission to Gulf Port, Miss., to rebuild damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2004, Neiss and a group of OECers delivered an ambulance to Santiago, Mexico. But that was more of a teaching expedition.
Neiss had been looking for some time for a place to bring his students. This time he sought a medical mission where he and his group could put their skills to use.
Neiss reconnected with Kari Straley, a former fellow church member and Minnesotan, now working for Solid Rock International and living in the Dominican Republic. The nonprofit coordinates medical missions to the country.
While in Dominican Republic, Neiss’ group stayed in dormitory-style accommodations supplied by Solid Rock.
The last night of the trip, however, they stayed in a resort hotel.
One of the girls in Neiss’ group felt uncomfortable about the marked contrast from the poverty they had just experienced. “We didn’t earn this,” she said.
“That’s when I could tell the trip had an impact,” Neiss said.
Neiss wants to return to the welcoming country of people grateful for what little they have and not concerned with what they don’t have, he said.
“If we don’t do this annually, we’ll do it at least every other year,” he said.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]