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Pay it Forward: Medical Teams International

Medical Dealer | Slice of Life | Medical Teams  InternationalBy Matthew N. Skoufalos

In a world in which nearly 7 million children die from preventable diseases before their fifth birthdays, 285,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth due to a lack of access to services, and 42,500 people are made refugees around the world, the need for relief from disaster, conflict, and poverty is overwhelming. To address those deficits in a way that creates sustainable, lasting change is the mission of the Tigard, Oregon-based nonprofit, Medical Teams International (MTI).
“We live in a world of tremendous need and tremendous opportunity,” said Joe DiCarlo, Vice-President of Programs for MTI. “We take the human resources, financial resources, material resources, and match them to where the need is greatest so we can have maximum impact.”
MTI is designed to respond to those disasters that local governments or the communities affected by them do not have the capacity to respond to. It trains pools of volunteer doctors, nurses, and paramedics to become part of the teams that provide direct services in those countries, “to stop the bleeding,” DiCarlo said; “to save lives.
“We work with local agencies, local government, and help complete or implement their relief plan,” DiCarlo said. “We don’t just respond to disasters and then leave.”
The overarching goal of the organization is to save and improve the lives of 5.5 million of the world’s most marginalized people by the year 2020. When a disaster strikes, MTI works to rehabilitate the local health system to get it online again. The group also ships in medical supplies, trains local responders, and operates data-driven development programs to manage the specific needs of the communities in which it operates.
“We’ll implement programs with the community and see how we’re doing,” DiCarlo said. “If we’re not improving, then we make course adjustments so we can ensure we’re making a difference on a two- or three-year project.”
Its efforts are significant. In concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, MTI has provided medical care for not only the 400,000 refugees entering Uganda from places like South Sudan, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also for indigenous Ugandans.
“We don’t want to provide quality care to the refugees and not allow the host community to have that as well,” DiCarlo said.
In Cambodia, where many women may deliver their babies without the aid of nurse midwives or birthing attendants, MTI operates multiple programs designed to improve maternal-child healthcare. These include birth training for nurse midwives, the arrangement of transportation during the labor and delivery period, and even the provision of a non-pneumatic shock garment that helps treat women at risk of hemorrhage during birth.
“In one clinic I visited, that garment was used 10 times, and nine of the mothers went home to their babies,” DiCarlo said. “Without it, we would have lost all of them.”
In Guatemala, where hygiene is an issue that exposes children to fatal risks from diarrhea and upper respiratory ailments, MTI is working with community health and political leaders to address root causes. The organization is helping put smokeless stoves in their homes as well as constructing ventilated pit latrines, and doing so with a sensitivity to their culture.
“Our staff follow up on hygiene education and train local mothers to give the messages to their own neighbors,” DiCarlo said. “It’s honoring and providing dignity to the community, it’s empowering the community to take responsibility for their own health, and in many cases, it’s doing quite well.”
The needs of vulnerable populations are not merely confined to foreign nations; likewise, neither are the efforts of MTI. In its backyard of Washington and Oregon, MTI has refitted 11 40-foot Winnebago vans that house two complete dental offices. Five days a week, they travel to areas of rural communities that don’t have access to care, can’t afford care, or don’t receive Medicare.
“You’d be surprised how many children in our own communities can’t swallow because they have tooth pain,” DiCarlo said. “That keeps them out of the emergency room, keeps the costs down, and allows us to address the need of marginalized persons in our own community.”
MTI also operates a warehouse for storing and transporting donated medical supplies to its partners around the world. Since 1986, the company has shipped $1.5 billion worth of medical supplies where they’re needed most, DiCarlo said — but that figure pales in comparison to the value of the volunteer component of its efforts.
“We can get expertise that we need for a project, sending medical doctors to provide direct care, sending medical specialists to provide training; to enhance the work we’re doing and provide impact,” he said. “We take the resources that we have here on this side of the ocean, and we’re the conduit that allows them to be used in an effective ways in communities in need and have a lasting impact.”
MTI also works to expand the native institutions in the countries it visits, such as Guatemala, Haiti, Liberia, Uganda, and the Philippines. By working in partnership with the local communities in which it operates, MTI is incorporating the perspectives of the people in need while also empowering them to become self-reliant and capable.
DiCarlo tells the story of a nurse midwife that MTI had sent to South Sudan to provide education about emergency obstetrics and newborn care.
“She had just done a session on delivering by C-section, and a woman with a troubled pregnancy came in,” DiCarlo said. “She talked the doctors through the C-section, she resuscitated the baby, and both baby and mother are doing great.”
In some countries around the world, traffic accidents are a leading cause of death, often because of poor treatment from first responders or unsafe transport to the hospital, DiCarlo said. In response, MTI works to develop curricula with local ministers of health that are technologically appropriate for each country.
“We train master trainers, and that training is cascaded down throughout the system,” he said. “In some countries, we’ve changed the way they handle emergency paramedics, and it’s part of a national system. In some places where people were normally put in the back of a taxi or a motorcycle, they now have an ambulance. They’re now transported safely and appropriately [and] they’re assessed before they’re transported.”
The results of outreach from MTI have been long-lasting and tangible. After Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, MTI worked to train local first responders to handle storm emergencies. When another typhoon threatened to hit the same area in which the agency had served 20,000 people just a year later, the local paramedics were prepared.
“[They] contacted us and said, ‘Thank you for your training. We’re ready for this,’ ” DiCarlo said. “We can’t be everywhere, but where we are, we can build the capacity of the local system.”