So You Want to Go on a Medical Mission

Cathy S. Chapman

Disclosures

Journal for Nurse Practitioners. 2007;3(10):707-712. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

This article is intended to provide basic information on medical mission trips: what a medical mission trip is, how to find a medical mission organization, and how to prepare both personally and professionally.

Introduction

My professional life has been arranged each year around a medical mission to Honduras. Some people think it's strange that I would spend so much money and time to go to a third-world country for a few short weeks every year. How can it make a difference to the health of these people? But many more people take me aside and want to know what is involved -- 'they too would like to go. What is a medical mission? What is involved? And why would one want to do this?

There are many reasons for wanting to do a medical mission trip: the sense of adventure, a chance to see another country up close and personal, a meaningful vacation. When done in the right spirit, medical mission trips are much more than a vacation, they truly become a life-changing experience. My colleagues and I go on mission trips with the expectation that we are helping someone less fortunate than ourselves. But what we often find is that we are touched and changed by the experience far more than the people that we are there to help. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

Mission trips are usually faith based, but there are nonreligious organizations that sponsor mission trips. Mission trips vary in length, depending on the location and organization. Most are 1 to 3 weeks in length.

If you are thinking about going on a medical mission, you have to do some tough work upfront. The first thing to look at is taking a hard look at yourself. You will be spending 1 to 2 weeks in a foreign country with people that you may not know. The conditions may be primitive; the food may be different from that what you are used to. You will probably be working long hours with limited supplies and equipment. Language and culture barriers may make your work more difficult. How good are you at "going with the flow"? How do you cope when the unexpected becomes the expected? How do you feel about cold showers, or worse, no showers? No electricity? How well do you do with living in close proximity with strangers? It is absolutely crucial that you know what you are getting into and are prepared to accept it. If you go and do not like it, it will be the longest 10 to 14 days of your life! You will be miserable and make those around you miserable as well!

OK; so you have thought about it and you really want to do it! The next step is finding a medical mission team.

Often finding a team is a matter of looking in one's own community. Many mission teams are faith based, so looking within one's faith community or denomination is a good place to start. If you are not affiliated with or not interested in working with a faith-based team, sometimes doctors, nurse practitioners, or other care providers from the local health care community do medical relief work that is not faith based. Check with your local hospital for further information on these teams. If neither of these options has proven fruitful, check the Internet. There are many websites for nondenominational faith-based organizations as well as nonfaith-based organizations ( Table 1 ).

Once you find a team or a group in which you are interested, get to know this group as well as possible before you commit to a trip. Try to spend time with others who will be on your team to get to know them better. Be sure you are clear on expectations; know what you can expect from them and know what they expect from you. Know exactly what the costs will be and what the cost covers. Ask specifically about before-trip costs: the cost of immunizations and any clothing and supplies that you will need to purchase before leaving. Know what additional costs you are expected to pay when you are abroad. The first year I did a medical mission trip, I had not been forewarned of a $25 per person exit tax. I had spent all my money the previous day to buy gifts for friends and family and had to borrow money to pay the exit tax!

As soon as you commit to going, begin working on obtaining a passport and immunizations, if you do not have them already. There is substantial cost involved in getting a passport, and currently there may be a several month delay, particularly if a visa is also required. Contact the embassy by phone or e-mail of the country you plan to visit to learn of visa requirements, time frame for submission, cost. Your organization should be able to tell you what immunizations are recommended for where you will be working. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website (www.cdc.gov) is a wealth of information on country-specific immunizations recommended, information on diseases specific to areas, and tips to staying healthy while abroad. The immunization recommendations may vary within a country (ie, mountains compared with coast, city compared with country), so it is important to follow the CDC recommendations. But remember, immunizations and preventative medications are not 100% effective in preventing diseases, so it is essential that you follow all recommendations for preventing illness. You might also consult the US State Department at www.state.gov for any travel restrictions or warnings about the host country before you leave.

When you receive your passport, make a copy to leave at home with a friend or family member, make a copy for your team leader, and hide a copy somewhere in your suitcase. One year, my passport was stolen from my pocket on a shopping venture in the city. It was my hidden copy of my passport that got me through customs and back home.

Figure 1.

Be sensitive to the poverty around you on mission trips.

Figure 2.

Photo courtesy of the author: People waiting in line to be seen at a clinic.

Figure 3.

Photo courtesy of the author: Brenda Deller, RN, of Richmond, Virginia, giving dosing instructions.

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