(SNR) - In October, several people from the Diocese of Lincoln joined a Helping Hands Medical Mission team for service to the poor in El Salvador.
Originating from a large parish in Houston, Texas, and cooperating with local members of Regnum Christi, this mission team goes to Sonsonate, El Salvador, every year.
Like many other Central American nations, El Salvador has been burdened with political upheaval. A difficult economy has left around half of the 5.8 million citizens living at the poverty line – able to acquire food but little else.
Dr. Michael O’Donnell of Lincoln Anesthesiology Group PC has been on the trip numerous times. His enthusiasm for the program has led him to recruit more doctors, medical professionals and others to volunteer as well.
The medical team works a grueling schedule during the eight-day trip. The first day is basically spent out in the community, praying with the local people, handing out rosaries and getting a look at their living conditions – often little more than hand-made galvanized steel sheds with dirt floors.
Because of gang warfare, the group travelled with an armed police escort wherever they went.
After that, it’s 12-hour days or more, seeing as many people as possible and treating conditions ranging from minor headaches to life-threatening wounds.
Last year, Dr. O’Donnell convinced Ann Lerdahl, a nurse anesthetist on his staff in Lincoln, to join the team.
It’s an experience that changed Mrs. Lerdahl’s life.
"When she came back, she was so fired up, she wanted to take me along this year," said her husband, Allan.
As an art, journalism and technology instructor at Lourdes Central Catholic School in Nebraska City, Mr. Lerdahl doesn’t have the training for medical service. But he found that he could have an important role as well.
"I was basically the daycare guy," he said.
With around 300 patients moving through the clinic each day, despite having to wait up to five hours to see a doctor, there were many children who needed something to occupy their time.
"Being a teacher, I figured that’s what I was going to do," Mr. Lerdahl said. "That and handing out handing out hundreds and hundreds of rosaries."
So, while his wife assisted a gynecologist, and while other medical professionals tended to various ailments, Mr. Lerdahl and some Regnum Christi teen volunteers kept the children safe and happy with coloring books, games and songs.
Mr. Lerdahl said that anyone who feels called to participate in a mission trip like this one should do it, even if that person lacks medical training like he does.
"These people have so little. They are just living day to day," he said. "They will wait four hours just to get some Tylenol, because they can’t even afford that much."
What struck Mr. Lerdahl him most about the Salvadorian people was their gratitude.
"They’re so appreciative down there," he said, "I never got hugged so much in my life."
Helping Hands medical missionaries are Catholic doctors, nurses, and volunteers who come from all areas of the United States and Canada to work in small clinics, hospitals, schools and churches in rural towns. They bring supplies and medicine so they can provide free medical care for thousands of patients in need.
HHMM teams also teach Natural Family Planning and take part in a rich spiritual program that includes daily Mass, prayer and meditation and sharing the Christian faith with the people they meet.
For more information about this non-profit 501(c)3 organization or to donate cash, supplies or time, visit www.hhmm.org.