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Mercy Outreach Surgical Team Makes A Difference In Mexico

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Posted: Friday, January 17, 2020 1:36 pm

Imagine having a serious medical condition you have to live with because you can’t afford to get the much needed surgery. For the past 30-plus years, an organization called Mercy Outreach Surgical Team (M.O.S.T.) has been helping people in that situation in Mexico offering a variety of free surgeries to children and adults and giving them a new chance in life.

Some of the patients who couldn’t afford care were affected by more than their health; they had been bullied and ostracized because of their conditions that often included burn scars, moles, strabismus, and cleft palate. Thanks to the participation of the medical teams of doctors, nurses and support personnel that travel to Mexico three to four times a year patients’ lives are changed forever.

Some local residents have been part of M.O.S.T. for a number of years. One of them is Imperial Beach resident Salvador Hernandez, M.O.S.T.’s program manager. He started his 36-year career in the medical field first as an Army medic and moving on to different civilian positions and eventually retiring as a health assistant specialist. His involvement with M.O.S.T. dates back to 21 years ago. His wife Sara, who is a nurse at Scripps Mercy Hospital, was one of five people that started the program and Hernandez has been involved with M.O.S.T. in different capacities over the years.

Originally M.O.S.T., who went by a different name in the early days, brought busloads of kids to the U.S. so that doctors could perform the surgeries in the U.S. while Rotary provided financial assistance. After 9/11 the M.O.S.T. teams started traveling to Mexico instead, because of the difficulties with security.

Hernandez recalls how his role has changed. “I was a nursing assistant at first. Several years later the coordinator in Mexico asked me to continue with the program. I was his assistant for several years,” explained Hernandez.

He recalls that in the first few years doctors performed many plastic and orthopedic surgeries, but with time, the team realized that some of those surgeries required follow ups. With that in mind the team started focusing on other surgeries like operating on strabismus patients, something that takes 10 to 15 minutes. “This [surgery] impacts more lives. You don’t do [this type of surgery] in Mexico unless you have the money. We were always leaving behind patients from kids to adults,” he said of the incredible number of patients who come for help.

“The requests for strabismus surgeries, eye muscle or eye alignment surgery, is endless,”explained Hernandez, “and it only takes minutes to change a person’s life.”

The cost for strabismus surgery is high in Mexico and very expensive for the average person. Many of those who suffer from it can’t afford the surgery because their family has to chose between buying food or having surgery.

One of the long time pediatric ophthalmologist on the team is Doctor Harry O’Hallaran, a Coronado resident who has been committed to M.O.S.T. for many years. “Why wouldn’t you [do it] if given the opportunity to give back? I’ve been given an opportunity…I’m fortunate to be with M.O.S.T. When we go, we do 50 surgeries a day. Here in San Diego on a good day I do 17 or 18. Everybody works crazy hard…we hassle to get it done,” he said.

O’Hallaran, who works at Rady Children’s Hospital points out one of the differences between operating here and in Mexico. “Here before the operation you get to know the family, in Mexico they hand us their children and say ‘Here.. fix them,’” he said. “With the current political climate, [M.O.S.T.] shows the Mexican community that we’re all human beings separated by a border…they see us in a good light.”

O’Hallaran, who is the medical director of M.O.S.T., said his wife is super understanding and knows that the trips to Mexico are something he has to do. He plans on going on this year’s upcoming trips in May and August.

Each M.O.S.T. team consists of about 60 people from San Diego that include plastic surgeons, general urologists, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other support personnel.

Hernandez explained that as the program manager planning a trip, he first works with the local Rotary Club in Mexico who in turns contacts the governor’s wife, whose duties include health issues, and then the Secretary of Health. Rotary takes care of the team while in Mexico with food and lodgings. Once the government gives the ok, which usually happens a year in advance, Hernandez presents the plan for the locations up to the M.O.S.T. board for approval. Some of the areas where the team travels can be dangerous and M.O.S.T. follows the guidelines of the State Department for travel warnings. There have been a few instances when a trip had to be canceled for safety reasons.

Once a location had been decided, the local government does the pre-screenings of the patients in their communities and informs them of the surgeries that can be performed. Herandez pointed out that often the patients walk for days to get to the town where M.O.S.T. is doing surgeries.

M.O.S.T., which is under the Mercy Foundation, holds its own fundraiser annually to continue the team’s work. One of those fundraisers is a Mariachi Festival which started in a church basement years ago and it is now held at Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay.

In order for the members of the team to travel to Mexico to perform the surgeries, each person takes time off from their jobs and volunteers their time to make a difference.

Every time Hernandez and the team travel to Mexico, there are many touching stories. One of them is of an Indigenous mother who brought her 15-month old baby to see a team doctor. “She couldn’t open her eyes and all she did was cry. The doctor saw her and it turned out she had eye cancer,” he recalled.

The baby’s father did not want the baby to have an operation so the local mayor’s wife and the priest talked to the father and finally convinced him. The father allowed the surgery as long as the baby was baptized and the mayor’s wife and son served as godparents. The child had her eye removed and later received a prosthetic eye. “Several years back she came to an event. She is now a tall young lady who wants to study to become nurse,” he recalled.

“I love seeing the smile of gratitude… It does not only impact their lives but their family’s and the community’s. They are our future leaders… they will remember and contribute back to society” said Hernandez of the patients. “If our surgeons don’t do [the surgeries] who else will? A lot of the indigenous people have their own belief system and are apprehensive until they see it on somebody else and how it improves their lives. That’s why I continue to do this,” he said.

M.O.S.T. takes all the equipment and supplies from the U.S. but buys medicine locally. When the team gets to a location, it’s all set up for them thanks to the work done ahead of time by Hernandez. Surgeries are sometimes performed at a local hospital while other times at outpatient clinics. So far M.O.S.T. has done surgeries in 16 Mexican states. This year’s upcoming surgeries will be done on two week-long trips - one in the state of Guanajuato and the other in Queretaro - and two weekend trips in May to Sonora and in August to Ensenada.

Anesthesiologist Kent Diveley of Coronado had been on 50 trips with M.O.S.T. since he started volunteering in the 1990s. He is currently the president of M.O.S.T. “ [It’s about] doing something good for people. I’ve been fortunate in my life for the things I’ve received. I feel I’m giving back the gifts I’ve received,” he said.

Diveley recalled a story of a young boy that O’Hallaran operated on for a nystagmus, an eye condition that causes the eye to jerk. Diveley explained that it is hard to see for those affected with it. The young boy came out of the operating room yelling “I can see. I’ve been cured!”

Diveley said that a number of children who had operations through M.O.S.T. come back over the years when the team is in Mexico to help out.

Many members of the team who have been on multiple trips realize that there are other needs for the children apart for the medical ones, and often nurses bring clothes and toiletries to give out to them. Over the years M.O.S.T. has also taken high school students on weekend trips to inspire them and show how they can help others in need.

“M.O.S.T. does 1,000 surgeries a year, and in U.S. healthcare dollars it translates to $40 to $50 million of free surgeries. We charge them zero. Ninety-eight percent of the money [raised] goes to patient care. We have no fixed expenses, we are a volunteer army,” said O’Hallaran.

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