Groups We Support: Mammoth Medical MissionsWednesday, September 7, 2016
The following report was written by MMM volunteer Scott McGuire after a recent training mission to Chiapas, Mexico. All photos by Sara May.
It’s never quite what you expect.
I’m just an EMT, a gear guy, the one who MacGyver’s things together. When I joined this mission I figured I’d be doing a little triage, setting up camp and being a bit of a gopher. I did not expect to be scrubbed into surgery, 18 hours into my day while the surgeon tells me to be delicate with the forceps. “You have the liver there. If you tear it, we have a problem and this guy goes down.”
Cholecystectomy was not even in my vocabulary before 7 am this morning when I was drinking coffee and listening to the day’s schedule. It’s nearly midnight now, and we’re on the fifth open gall bladder surgery of the day. While trying to hold a critical organ delicately in the clamp, I tilt my head to shine my headlamp into the abdominal cavity, my ReVolt beam illuminating where the surgeon will cut. We wear headlamps throughout the day, as once in the sterile field, you can’t fumble in the dark to find it. The power cuts unexpectedly and this is not the time for darkness.
Mammoth Medical Missions is a non-profit, volunteer organization made up of surgeons, nurses, ER docs, medics and logistical support staff who are also climbers, skiers, mountaineers and regular mountain-town dirtbags. Our expertise is in providing medical care and training to underserved rural populations as well as early field triage and emergent care in disaster zones. Our experience in the backcountry allows our teams to function in austere environments, where the kinds of facilities and infrastructure most medical teams are used to having either don't exist or have been destroyed.
Part of how we train and maintain readiness for disaster deployments is by organizing routine scheduled missions, such as this recent trip to Mexico where we served people who otherwise don't have options for medical care, and where, at the same time, we're able to work through and hone our systems, gear and personnel in austere but controlled circumstances. This is how I ended up in San Andres Larrainzar, in the mountains of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. In contrast to the coffee shops and artisan-lined streets of San Cristobal, Larrainzar is a hardscrabble village at 7200 feet with terraced farms descending the steep hillsides. A military outpost sits atop the highest point, a reminder that it is the heart of Zapatista country. The majority of the population is made up of indigenous Tzotzil (Mayan) people for whom Spanish is a second language.
On our first day, the doctors triage patients and set a schedule for the week while another volunteer and myself establish our camp. It’s the rainy season and we will be pitching our Mega Mid’s and Mesa tents in the courtyard of the local clinic where we are operating. It allows us to be close to patients throughout the night as well as an appropriate test of how a disaster field camp would operate in the heavy rains and damp climate. The clinic guards look on as we attach the fly to each tent, hesitant to believe we are actually going to sleep out here.
When the day ends, people congregate in the kitchen area, the terrace or around their tents. We should be exhausted, but the buzz of the day is hard to shake off. Once the stories are shared and patient updates passed around, the group slips away, one by one, for a few hours sleep. I turn in thinking how incredibly different each day has been from what I anticipated when we all met at LAX, piles of expedition duffels and Element 60 packs crowding the check-in counter. We run these trips to test our systems, our gear and ourselves. If any part of the chain breaks down, our potential for success falls apart. While most of us have come to trust our BD product in our personal quiver of recreational gear, having BD supply Mammoth Medical Missions with our packs, our shelters and our lighting makes executing these trips much more reliable.
For more information on Mammoth Medical Missions, the work they do and how you can contribute, visit http://www.mammothmedicalmissions.org