Pay It Forward: Giving back through medical missions
By Matthew N. Skoufalos
For 37 years, Philips Software Quality Engineer Ed Myers has worked in the medical device field, testing software on a range of products from patient monitors to central stations as he rose through the ranks from project management to consultancy.
In that time, Myers has also spent years volunteering his expertise to medical mission work, often through the nonprofit humanitarian group, Assist International. He’s been on at least a dozen trips to places as far-flung as Hungary, Kazakhstan, Djibouti, and Ukraine, managing and participating in projects designed to help improve the standard of care at healthcare facilities that lack the richness of resources typically available in the United States.
Groups like Assist International count on Myers not only being able to help maintain and install the equipment once it’s onsite but also to tap into his network of corporate sponsors and medical professionals to help source donations and material contributions to the cause.
“Working in the field, you learn how to sell an idea,” he said. “If you ask people they are interested in saving lives, that’s a tough one for people to refuse.”
Sometimes a photograph is all that’s needed to make the point — like the one he captured of babies in a hospital in Kiev, who were born with congenital heart defects as a result of the Chernobyl accident.
“These little babies were strapped down to keep them from pulling their patient cables out,” Myers said. “If they would go into arrest or desaturate, they would get the alarm, and the nurses would respond accordingly.”
When Myers plans out a project, he models it on his experience of installation protocol. First, there’s a pre-site visit, in which visitors will make primary contact with hospital administrators and staff in-country to assess needs. Then, the trip sponsor will assemble a budget and start its outreach for finances and inventory.
“That sets the wheels in motion to go out to the customer and determine what is the best approach to the installation with the least impact to patients and hospital staff,” Myers said.
Yet the adage concerning the best-laid plans is a well-worn one for no small reason, he added.
“There have been times when, as an engineer, you see so much in a third-world country,” Myers said. “The World Health Organization (WHO) provided the hospital in Djibouti with patient monitors, but they just dropped them off. [The staff there] had no idea how to operate them; how to mount them.”
Sadly, he added, medical missions often receive surplus equipment for which there isn’t a good fit on the ground.
“We’d see a donated CO2 monitor with no CO2 transducer, which is a $1,500 item,” Myers said. “That product is going to end up in a landfill. That’s the worst thing that can happen.”
Rather, what recipients need, he said, is the right product with access to complete clinical and technical training to operate it.
“If something were to break, they would know where to call to get assistance,” Myers said.
Sometimes the equipment is a secondary concern to conditions on the ground. In 1993, when Myers was invited to attend his first medical mission, in Estonia and Ukraine, political tensions marked the trip. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and Myers knew that, as an American entering Soviet satellite states, he would be headed into a potentially unstable environment.
People told him, “You’re crazy; it’s dangerous,” he recalls. But his wife replied, “If you don’t do it, who will?” That approach set him on a path of exploration throughout eight locations in Eastern Europe, after which Myers realized that cities like Tallinn and Kiev felt no more dangerous to him than walking around some parts of Boston.
“You heard different things about the Soviet Union and you didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Of course, now they’re great places to visit as a tourist.”
In 2005, Kabul, Afghanistan was similarly unsettled, Myers said. But through a visit with Cure International, he assisted in the installation of patient monitors, fetal monitors and telemetry equipment to a hospital with a large staff of Western-trained doctors and volunteers.
The installation went easily, he said, because their training was compatible with the approach of the medical team. Five years later, he returned to the country, to a public health hospital in Jalalabad operated by Afghan doctors and staffers, and recalls having a different experience.
“The Afghani people are so, so proud when they receive a donation, that I’d see plastic bags on the monitors,” Myers said. “Their response was that they were really nervous about getting dust and dirt on them.”
Experiences like those drive home not only the level of need in some of the countries Myers has visited but also the degree of cultural difference in which he often operates to do the work he’s there to do. Fortunately, he said, “a suitcase full of candy and snacks often helps bridge the gap.”
“Just because we’re from America and we think we know everything, you can’t tell people what they need,” Myers said. “You’re pretty much acting like diplomats. What [native people] know of Americans is that everyone makes a lot of money and you’re going to come here and take a lot of pictures.”
But after dismantling that impression, there’s many times when the medical team is showered with gifts, or receives expensive dinners with more food than they can possibly eat by people who ignore their lack of means to be hospitable and gracious, he said.
“People are the same all over the world,” Myers said. “People really can’t believe that you’ve given up your vacation time to come over to a poor country.”
“Everyone believes in some form of religion; everybody wants the best for their family,” he said. “They also want to improve their own life. That’s really a common thread. It’s interesting to listen to that and to observe it.”