Perspectives on the Acute Care Continuum

The Acute Care Continuum is the integration of urgent, emergent, inpatient and post-discharge care of patients with acute medical conditions.

How A Medical Mission Changed My Practice

5/10/2017 2:13:20 PM | 11 comments

Deep in the jungle in the Darien Province of Panama, I was struck by just how lucky I was to be working in the medical profession. Often life in the emergency department (ED) is so hectic and draining that it’s easy to forget what made me become a physician assistant (PA). But sitting with a Ticuna Indian woman who had walked three days for the promise of a medical miracle, I was reminded that I’d made the right choice.

We traveled in April, driving hours along windy roads on a bus to get to this remote area southeast of Panama City, just near the Columbian border. There were bats and mosquitos, and we all hoped we wouldn’t get dengue fever. It was certainly a risk. It was sweltering, with no escape and no relief. It turns out we were the relief. In the end, the heat was the least of what we remembered.

I was in Panama as part of a medical mission sponsored by Global Brigades, a group that serves people without access to good medical care in multiple Central American countries and Ghana. There were about 26 of us in total: 10 physician assistants and 12 nurse practitioners from the San Francisco Bay area who had raised funds to cover our travel costs and medical supplies. Several in-country administrative staff had joined us, as well as one Panamanian dentist, whose gift to the clinic was two days of tooth extractions.

Hearing we were coming, indigenous people from the surrounding jungle had walked three to four days to get medical support, bringing with them their families, their stories, and of course, their illnesses. We took over a village school for four days and stayed in a bunkhouse a few miles away. We sat up organizing medications and dental kits each night and then treated patients all day.

One woman in particular stands out in my memory. She was only in her mid-20s and complained of lower abdominal pain and bloating that had been worsening for three to four months. I dug into her history. She said she had a preliminary diagnosis of uterine cancer, but didn’t have the financial means or ability to travel to get treatment. She appeared so calm and at peace with what was to come.

Our clinic was simple. We had only basic treatments: antibiotics, antifungals, anthelmintic, and permethrin. We didn’t have the equipment or medications to handle the complexity of her case. So we offered her what we could—basic pain medication and our ability to listen to her questions and explain her condition. And for that, she thanked us. She told us that she just loved sitting with us and speaking with us. And that meant more to her than anything else we could have done.

As doctors and advanced providers, we don’t always have a cure. But we can always provide care. Human touch, compassion, and education mean so much to someone who needs help coping with the uncertainty and fear their illness creates.

I have talked with many medical professionals who have traveled on similar missions and returned to the United States with a similar feeling of renewal and joy for practicing medicine. They come back reminded that being a provider is about more than drugs, technology, and paperwork. It’s about the ability to show our patients we care.

At CEP America, where I am an emergency medicine PA in Orange County, our mission is to create a culture of caring. Recognizing that job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high for healthcare providers, CEP has launched an initiative called Joy in Medicine that encompasses wellness, leadership development, coaching for engagement and empathy, and team building.

Based on my experience in the Panamanian jungle, I can’t think of a better way to bring satisfaction back into your practice than going on a medical mission. I know that the experience was as rewarding for me us as it was for those I treated. Fortunately, CEP’s flexible scheduling and sabbatical program makes it possible for other physicians and advanced providers to get out of the ED and refocus their skills on caring versus coping. I recommend all providers who are questioning their careers to consider taking this kind of break.

This post was originally published on the FemInEM healthcare blog.


Topics: Careers

Jasleen Kaur
I admire your amazing work! I would too like to volunteer for a medical mission. However, I am a nonprofessional. I have undergone phlebotomy training and worked as a medical scribe. I am living in north California, San Jose to be specific. Are there any organizations of your knowledge, that I would be able to join?
11/10/2017 3:40:00 PM

Leslie Carlson
For as long as I have known you, I have been impressed by your generous heart and by the strength of your convictions. You have proven your ability time and time again by overcoming adversity and persevering. This is just another of the steps you take on a daily basis to show us all what being a kind and generous member of society is all about. I wholeheartedly support every move you make and believe in the greater good of your mission to help the healthcare providers in your organization feel a deep connection to the patients and the goal to help everyone understand that all things come to those who help others. Always proud to know you and of all that you do everyday for everyone that is lucky enough to know you.
5/26/2017 12:02:10 PM

Jodie Connor
Thank you for sharing this story and your work. All medical professionals should be applauded for their time, energy, and passion for these wonderful projects. Those treated by you, Anna, were so fortunate to not only receive the best treatment, but your kindness and concern as well. Hard to say you "go the extra mile" - when you go the extra thousands of miles!
5/22/2017 8:45:59 AM

Anna, your passion for your profession shines through your words. Your experiences in Panama can only strengthen your work at home. As a nurse, I full understand the power of caring. It is rarely what you do, but how you do it that changes people's lives. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure you will inspire others to participate in medical missions.
5/21/2017 5:09:35 PM

Serena van Osta
Thank you for the wonderful story and for the good works. Today, it is always wonderful to hear about the amazing accomplishments of people. 'Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear. '

William Shakespeare
5/21/2017 3:33:07 PM

Anna Heilig-Adams
To Cyndy, Tamara, David, Peter, and Jon;
I just figured out how to respond to your comments so I apologize for the group response. Thank you all so much for your kind words. This is something I am very passionate about and feel so lucky that this passion is encouraged at CEP.
5/13/2017 12:29:23 PM

Jon Brummond
Anna, One of the most strikingly obvious characteristics about your personality is your profoundly caring disposition. In so many ways you have inspired, are inspiring and will inspire others to embrace and engage this same wonderful foundational core value we have as the stand-out leader in our industry and this needful world. Thanks for your passion and this contribution!
5/11/2017 12:04:36 PM

Peter Allen
What amazing work. Thank you so much for providing care to these people. I really appreciate you sharing this with us!
5/11/2017 10:58:27 AM

David Carter
Thanks for sharing your story and of those you served. It's a great example of the Joy of Medicine and why most of us have taken this journey; the desire to help in whatever way possible. I appreciate the inspiration.
5/11/2017 10:58:07 AM

Tamara Longo
Thank you for sharing your experience. What a gift provided, and received, by you and your team. Your statement, 'It’s about the ability to show our patients we care', certainly summarizes the impact of caring for others.
5/11/2017 6:48:30 AM

Cyndy Flores
Thanks for the inspirational story and for being a champion of our Culture of Caring!
5/11/2017 6:25:28 AM