Mammoth Medical Missions packs for Mexico – barring a last-minute typhoon.
On Sunday, May 11, a 20-person team from Mammoth Medical Missions will leave for Chiapas, Mexico, to bring medical care to people in the remote, mountainous town of San Andrés Larráinzar.
The volunteers were packed and headed to Chiapas last November when fate intervened in the form of a catastrophic typhoon that struck the Philippines.
Instantly, like a swarm of starlings in flight, team members switched direction and flew instead to the hard-struck town of Tanauan, taking all surgical supplies and equipment with them. While most relief takes five to 10 days to arrive, Mammoth Medical Missions was the first team to land … within three days. They set up improbable operating rooms, in the midst of devastation, rain, lack of electrical power and potable water.
There they worked their medical magic. For five days. Until supplies ran out. The mission in the Philippines demonstrated the vital importance of disaster medicine in saving lives.
Traditionally, disaster relief has come from the military and government agencies, bureaucracies with miles and miles of red tape.
Then along comes Mammoth Medical Missions (MMM), an all-inclusive package of personnel, supplies and equipment, that can sweep as fast as lightning into an area of trauma, as in the Philippines. Its mission is to rapidly deploy to an emergency with medical treatment and field triage in large-scale disaster.
The team’s performance and effectiveness in the Philippines brought awareness to this kind of non-governmental solution. Donations to MMM went from $2,000 the previous year to $150,000 this past year. Non-profits such as Direct Relief became an emergency preparedness partner. For MMM’s mission to Chiapas, Direct Relief has provided some $18,000 in medical supplies, which include a valuable autoclave for sterilizing instruments.
According to Dr. Mike Karch, an MMM founder and team chief in Tanauan, doctors can perform surgeries under optimal conditions, thanks to high-tech equipment now provided by sponsors. For instance, the team will take BioLite stoves, which enable one to cook on wood while generating electricity to charge phones, lights and other electronics off-grid.
Waves for Water provides water filtration equipment. The team will have solar lights to illuminate its campground or an operating room if need be. All this and state-of-the-art communications gear, too, something the team did not have in the Philippines.
Sophisticated tools like these make fast and light deployment of disaster medical relief possible. “It’s a hot topic and will become more so in the future,” Karch says. “We’re looking to the educational component of disaster training. In Mexico next week, we’re training with satellite phones, solar chargers and more, so that everyone on the team will be able to function highly in a disaster situation.”
The trip to Chiapas serves MMM’s mission to provide medical, surgical and general health-care relief to underserved rural and mountain communities while also serving as a training ground for emergency response.
Logistics are key. The team gained experience and knowledge with Typhoon Haiyan. There is now a master list of everything needed, and in Mammoth, the week before deployment, volunteers were unpacking about 50 boxes of gear and supplies that have come from sponsors and repacking them into containers with color-coded tags, so the team can hit the ground running.
Sunday the volunteers will drive down to L.A., travel all day Monday and arrive in San Andrés that evening to set up camp and sleep under the stars or rain, as the case may be.
San Andrés Larráinzar is in Chiapas, southernmost Mexican state. Rough terrain. Not many roads. It has the distinction of being the location of the Zapatista accords in 1996. The population is predominantly Mayan.
In the morning, 300 people will be waiting outside the clinic to be screened according to their medical issues. It’s an insane time, says MMM C.O.O. David Page, when they determine who is to get what kind of surgery, who maybe can’t be helped or doesn’t need surgery.
This is the hard part, Karch admits. “Three hundred people are waiting for us. We choose the first 40, then another 60 if we have the resources and the time. Two hundred are turned away. They’ve traveled 200 miles with a problem they’ve had for 10 years. We have to do the best with what we have. It’s still better than nothing.”
And the surgeries—all day for several days on end? It requires complete detachment, says Karch, disconnection from noises and other distractions. It’s no different than in any other operating room.
Doctors will operate in three rooms: general, OB-GYN, and orthopedic. In addition, they’ll run a daily general clinic, a kind of rural ER.
It’s exhausting, but tremendously rewarding work. “You see baseline humanity,” Page says, meaning people who are stoic in the face of pain.
“It’s what keeps me going,” says Karch, when asked why he does it. “It’s the purest form of medicine.”
Karch is not making this trip, although his wife, pediatrician Kim Escudero, will represent the family. In addition to doctors Fru Bahirei, Martha Kim, Antonette Ciccarelli, Sierra Bourne, Tim Crall, Sara May and Paul Chu, are nurses, an EMT, and a physical therapist. Beyond providing health care, the team will also leave much of the equipment in place to be used by the local doctor.