My First Medical Mission Trip: How Did I Get Here?

I've learned so very much and feel incredibly blessed to have been part of many overseas volunteer mission trips. Here's how it all started.



I remember my reaction when the subject came up. Oh helll nooooo. Be present in an operating room? Be near someone while they're having surgery in their eye? It was absolutely impossible to even imagine. I have never worked in the medical field, nor have I ever had any medical training. But my longtime, dear friend insisted. She said, "I'm serious Lisa, I really think you can do it."

My friend - let's call her B. - has been a pilot for years. We've known each other for decades, and as life tends to take us through many twists and turns, we'd lost touch and regained it again and again over the years. As we reconnected yet again, we caught each other up on our lives. She had worked for several years as a charter pilot, flying her own plane. She had been on retainer, and therefore was for hire when families or business people wanted a private flight but didn’t want to go through the headaches of owning their own plane. She had also been hired by a surgeon who does cataract surgeries in developing countries. She would fly him, with his volunteer team, and any necessary supplies to those countries. She would then stand by as they completed their mission, then bring them back to the United States afterward. After several trips she started feeling restless just sitting around waiting for the team to finish. She decided to get trained to scrub in and assist. Now she had been working with him for over 10 years, and for several of those she had flown as many as 10-12 trips each year.

Now, let me just explain a few things about this amazing woman, B. She's very detail-oriented, and if she takes on a responsibility she takes it extremely seriously. She's also incredibly loyal, and these missions mean the world to her. There is nothing she would do to jeopardize her assistance of the surgeon, the non-profit organization he's affiliated with, or any of the wonderful people who receive care. Which is why when she said she believed in me, and that she would train me herself, I thought there just might be a chance that she'd thought this through and wasn't totally insane... She was willing to bring me in and endorse me to everyone involved. So, who was I to tell her she was wrong before I even gave it a shot?

"Which is why when she said she believed in me, and that she would train me herself, I thought there just might be a chance that she'd thought this through and wasn't totally insane..."

My job would be Circulator. This is a generally non-sterile position (I'll get to that part later). The job would include preparing all of the surgery kits for each day, one per patient. I would set surgery trays so they are prepared when each new patient is brought in. I would need to assist B. whenever needed, because she would be the scrub technician for the surgeon and sometimes would need things handed to her. I would also need to assist people in the waiting room, and be a "floater" however and whenever needed.


She began by explaining the basic procedure in layman's terms. It sounded so... gross. It was very surreal. I thought there was a very solid possibility that I would pass out if I actually saw a surgery up close and in real life, so I planned to avoid looking until they made me. Hopefully never. "If you start to feel woozy just drop straight down," I heard several times from pros in the medical field. They all agreed that if you fall sideways you could really hurt yourself - or pull down something with you. Not good. Best thing is to drop right where you are. Duly noted.

"If you start to feel woozy just drop straight down," I heard several times from pros in the medical field.

B. sent me a ton of cheat sheets. And I mean it - she had painstakingly made so many thorough notes, diagrams, lists; everything necessary to clearly paint a picture of the procedure, the specific sequence of steps the surgeon uses every single time, and every instrument that would be used. Also included was a drawing of a correctly set surgical tray, set in the most efficient order to best assist with this procedure. I did what any good student does: I made photocopies, and got the scissors out and started cutting out the photo of each instrument. I then wrote its name on the back. Flashcards! Practicing each one several times a day, then reading through the procedure and visualizing each instrument being used really got me familiar with them. The only problem was it was still so hypothetical. I just had to trust I'd figure it out, and that the team would be patient with me.

But my primary concern continued to be my stomach... In an effort to further prepare, I had a great idea. I started watching cataract surgery videos on Youtube.com. Holy crap!! At first, I would watch them only with my head turned sideways, with just one eye open (totally serious here). But then after days of this, watching the same ones over and over, I got a little more used to the fluids, the incisions, the injections... and could watch them with BOTH eyes open. So far so good. Of course, no amount of flash cards and video-watching can truly prepare you for being in the moment, with an actual patient, with actual blood. But hey, I did what I could!


My first clinic was to be 6 days long and would place in Nicoya, Costa Rica. How did it go? Well, even with all the preparation that I did, there's no way I could have known what I was in for! That adventure I'll save that for another day.

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