By Laura McAlister
Dr. Gwen Boyd has been participating in medical mission trips to Ecuador for years, but her most recent trip was the first time she and her team from the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital were able to help nearly-blind people see again.
Gwen is the chief of anesthesiology at UAB’s Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital. She and about 25 others from the hospital recently traveled to Napo, a province of Ecuador, as part of Medical Mission Nueva.
The annual mission trip was recently started by Gwen, who adopted her daughter, Noelle, from Ecuador more than 20 years ago.
“This really just began as a way for me to thank the country that gave me my daughter,” Gwen said. “Noelle is 23 now, and she travels with me on the trips.”
In the past, Gwen and her team have performed various surgeries. The most common in the area are surgeries on cleft palates, webbed toes and deformed ears.
During this year’s trip in November, the volunteers assisted in nearly 55 of those surgeries as well as 19 eye surgeries and five cornea transplants. Eye surgery is something the province has had little to no access to, but that’s changed since Mission Nueva was able to get an operating ophthalmic microscope for the area’s hospital, Hospital Estatal de Baeza.
The microscope came from the Callahan Eye Hospital, and it wasn’t an easy task getting it to Ecuador. It sat in customs for some nine months.
Though it took time to get there, the microscope was worth the wait, said Bonnie Parker. She and her husband, ophthalmologist John Parker, were among those from Callahan making the mission trip. The family has made several trips to Nicaragua, but this was their first to Ecuador with Mission Nueva.
“What’s really amazing about this is we’ll literally be making blind people see again,” she said. “This is really going to impact people’s lives. They’ll come in not being able to see anything, and an hour later, they’ll be able to see.”
In addition to the microscope, the group brought five corneas for transplants and lots of medical supplies. They also brought suitcases full of scrubs, pens and other items for patients and hospital staff members.
Those making the November trip included the Parkers and Gwen, two plastic surgeons, nurses, medical students and even a member of the Callahan human resources department.
The days were long, and the food “not so good,” said Karen Burleson, Callahan’s vice president of human resources. But it was rewarding. This was the first time Karen and her family made the weeklong trip to Ecuador. She and her daughter Katherine said they definitely will be doing it again.
“It was just really great seeing their expression after surgery and knowing that we helped them,” Katherine said.
Only three of those on this year’s trip spoke Spanish, the native language. But Syble Moore, a registered nurse at the eye hospital, said somehow the patients always have been able to break the language barrier when it came to showing their appreciation.
Syble was unable to join the group’s most recent trip to Ecuador but has gone in the past and hopes to go again in the future.
“I didn’t know half of what they said,” Syble said of her patients in Ecuador. “But they were so loving and grateful.”
As a doctor, Gwen said, her experiences in the South American country have been some of the best in her career and in her personal life, too. She’s become good friends with the medical director of the hospital, Dr. David Carbonell, and his wife.
While the technology is not up-to-date by American standards, she said, the hospital is very clean and well managed. In fact, the Hospital Estatal de Baeza was recently named the best public hospital in the country, she added.