Why Do We Volunteer?

 Dr. Kelly travels to Haiti twice a year and performs sight saving surgeries.

Dr. Kelly travels to Haiti twice a year and performs sight saving surgeries.

By Peter J. Kelly, M.D., CRUDEM Board Member & Past President

I was recently asked by Joni Paterson (the talented person who puts together this beautiful magazine) to write a brief article about an experience that I had shared with her that occurred on my last trip to Hopitâl Sacré Coeur.

In reflecting about the episode, I felt that it would be worthwhile to describe the volunteer experience as I see it from my personal experience, as well as from the experiences of the many volunteers I have met over the past 22 years. At the end, I’ll briefly tell you the story that prompted Joni to issue this invitation.

All of us volunteers are constantly being told by people how wonderful we are for volunteering. Most like me respond that we get far more from volunteering than we give. What’s not said is why we volunteer and what exactly we get from volunteering.

First Eye after surgery

First Eye after surgery

The common theme I hear when speaking to volunteers is how grateful they are for all that God has given them. From that gratitude comes a desire to give back to those less fortunate.

New volunteers typically focus on how much they give i.e. how many people they saw, how many surgeries they performed, etc. After one or two trips to HSC they begin to focus on the one person they helped, the thank you they received, the warm smile of gratitude from one of the patients.

It’s easier for people to understand the reward of being a medical volunteer but some struggle with the nonmedical volunteers. During the earthquake we all came to appreciate the vital role of the nonmedical volunteer. They were instrumental in helping us grow the hospital to meet the needs of the hundreds of patients and their family members.

That assistance continues today with the tremendous support of Holy Name hospital; through its’ President Mike Maron, and the staff of the different departments of the hospital that come to mentor and support our Haitian staff.

Second Eye after surgery

Second Eye after surgery

As an ophthalmologist I’m privileged to be able to improve people’s vision. During my last visit to HSC I encountered a situation that I’ll never forget.

As I was sitting in the exam room my first day seeing the 100+ patients that were scheduled a sad mother led her daughter into the room because she was blind. According to the mother her 16 year old daughter, who was diabetic and looked like she was 10, lost her vision gradually over the past 2 years. She had been able to read but now couldn’t even walk by herself or feed herself.

She had been followed by the pediatricians in the diabetic clinic at the hospital and they referred her for evaluation. The diabetic clinic was recently started by a team of volunteer pediatricians from the US who rotate to Haiti every 4 months to work with our Haitian pediatricians.
On examination she could only see light with each eye. She could not make out any movement or see objects. Her exam was normal except for mature cataracts. We decided to perform cataract surgery and hoped her eyes had not been damaged by the diabetes.

I removed one cataract on Monday and the second on Wednesday. On Tuesday morning she walked into the exam room on her own with a smiling mother behind her. After we removed her second cataract she was out in the courtyard waving to everyone on my team as we walked to breakfast.

Young patient with her mother after successful restoration of her sight.

Young patient with her mother after successful restoration of her sight.

I received an email from the pediatricians after I returned home telling me that her vision had returned to 20/30 and that she was reading and had returned to school.

As rewarding as this experience was for me personally and for my team, it couldn’t have happened without the support of many other volunteers. The medical volunteers i.e. the pediatricians who discovered her Diabetes and referred her. The nonmedical volunteers i.e. Holy Name hospital and its employees who have enabled HSC to remain open and improve its infrastructure.

Most importantly, it never could have happened without your financial support of the hospital.

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