Pay it Forward- Napoleon Franco Pareja La Casa del Nino Children’s Hospital
It was on a 2007 vacation to the tropical South American fishing village of Cartagena, Colombia, that Linda Reesor first visited Napoleon Franco Pareja La Casa del Nino Children’s Hospital. Reesor, the director of nursing education at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, had taken a much-needed vacation. Encouraged to check out the local pediatric health center while she was there, Reesor came face to face with the disparity between its condition and the facility where she works.
Touched by the conditions there, Reesor returned home determined to compile the materials, manpower, and strategy to embark on a medical mission to Cartagena. She enlisted the aid of coworker Luis Molina, pediatric endoscopy nurse and nursing committee co-chair at DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, and the two rallied eight other volunteers to join their cause. They paid for the journey entirely out of pocket, supported by donations raised from bake sales, raffles, and other small-scale fundraisers, and packed their bags with as much relief aid as they could carry.
Molina, a native of Medellin, Colombia, had visited Cartagena in his childhood, but the feeling of being able to return, armed with the skills and resources to aid its population, was something else altogether.
“I like to help people in general and I like to go on missions,” he said. “But now that I am going to my own country, I feel indescribable. I want to go every year.”
Molina described Cartagena as “like a little Miami. Situated in the northern coastal region of the country by the shores of the Caribbean, it’s an old, Spanish colonial town surrounded by a big stone wall, much like San Juan, Puerto Rico.”
Cartagena is also a modern city, “with big, very safe, very good hotels, and beautiful beaches and islands nearby,” he added.
The one-story pediatric hospital building is “beautiful and bigger” than the original infrastructure, he said, which was a tiny mission established by Catholic nuns in the 1940s. Eventually it will house an emergency room, Intensive Care Unit (ICU), consultation room, and cardiovascular surgery unit with the technology, staff and logistics necessary to address congenital heart disorders, as cardiac malformations “are very common in that population,” Molina said. Someday, he said, the hospital envisions adding on a pair of eight-story towers in which to provide pediatric subspecialty care.
As small as it is, the 150-bed hospital has local university affiliations and draws patients from throughout the region. Molina said it is “considered a teaching hospital,” offering clinical training to nurses and medical students, and also receiving occasional international medical student volunteers. On average, the hospital receives about 100,000 emergency patients annually, and admits about 10 percent of those. Approximately 50,000 outpatient consultations and 1,000 surgeries are performed.
“It’s in a poor neighborhood, and they serve that population,” Molina said. “People go there without money and without insurance and they take care of them no matter what. They see patients from fetal or one month to 20 years, more or less. They treat everything — respiratory, cardiac, digestive ailments.”
While onsite, the visitors led staff education classes, a community health fair, and performed some consultations in a nearby neighborhood. They offered psychological, nutritional and other medical care. They did rounds to see some of the children who were receiving care there. Molina recalls meeting one nine-year-old boy who had been waiting until the visitors arrived for surgery to treat a brain tumor; that moment was especially moving for him.
“They have no supplies; no resources,” he said. “He was waiting for surgery that week. We went to see him when he came out. They were very happy that they could help him.”
With the funds they had raised stateside, the volunteers were able to bring a small cargo of medical and dental equipment with them — scales, toothbrushes, toothpaste — along with educational manuals such as CPR texts, as well as some toys and clothes for the young patients at the hospital. Really, Molina said, it was “not too much because we couldn’t get anything else,” but the recipients “were happy, and we were so glad that we could help in any way.”
After returning from the trip, Molina said the group was re-energized by its adventure. They resolved to “pool all our energy to prepare better for the next time.” It’s difficult when the principal motivators are busy health care workers and their trip is not subsidized by larger corporate or health care sponsors, but the volunteers hope to raise enough money to bring 10 to 20 health care workers along with them on their return visit, which they have scheduled for June 2015.
“We have some people who want to go and do something more,” Molina said. “We are going to get our hospital administrators in contact with the Cartagena hospital administrators.”
Although some would-be volunteers had apprehensions about traveling to a country unfortunately associated with cartel violence, Molina said Cartagena is a town working against this reputation.
“They need to understand that they should fear nothing,” Molina said. “One year ago when we started talking about this and getting people involved, people said, ‘Oh that’s good, but I’m afraid of going to Colombia.’ I said, ‘Don’t be worried. Cartagena is a tourist city. You are safe and you can help these people in need.’ ”
“We are very well known because of the bad news,” he said, “but in Cartagena there is no bad news. People are poor, people are in need, but besides that, people are safe.”
If you would like to contribute to the mission work in Cartagena, visit www.gofundme.com/b5goig.