Medical mission trip to Belize in 15th year

BUCKHANNON – For the 15th year, Heart and Hand Ministries of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Buckhannon is traveling to Belize on a medical mission trip.

To bless the hands of the 26 members who will leave Saturday on the trip, Sister Francesca Lowis hosted The Blessing of the Hands Friday in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The mission group started 15 years ago, and has traveled to Belize each year to perform medical tasks such as surgeries, clinic operations, dentistry and more. Although it is the 15th mission trip to Belize, the group has gone on 17 total mission trips, with the other two trips – to Guatemala – pre-dating the official organization’s start.

The Heart and Hand Ministries has a connection to Belize because Lowis and her fellow Pallottine sisters also share sisters in Belize.

“Belize is close to our hearts because our sisters are there,” Lowis said.

Dr. Susan Long of St. Joseph’s Hospital will be traveling with the group as a surgeon. She has been a member of the group since its beginning. She said the local doctors refer patients to the mission group while they are in Belize and that patrons will travel from all corners of the country for treatment. Long estimated that in the last 15 years, the mission group has served more than 20,000 people.

Long said she hasn’t missed a year since she started with the mission trips. She said she could see herself doing this work forever and that she sees Belize as her second home.

An array of different medical professionals with varying specialties will be traveling as part of the group. Among those taking part are local surgeons, dentists and operating room crew members such as nurses, anesthetists, scrub technicians and lay people who will perform tasks like mopping floors and washing medical instruments.

Two medical doctors, Long and Dr. Stephen High, of Elkins, will treat the patients. Dentistry work will be performed by a team of seven dental professionals including Dr. Kevin M. Conde of Buckhannon and Dr. Adam Grubler of Fairmont.

Also traveling are Dr. Philip Chua from Elkins and R.N. Debbie Orsburn. Like Long, Orsburn has been part of the group since before its recognized establishment. Long’s husband, Dave Long, the owner of Blackwater Wellness in Buckhannon, also will be traveling to work as the operating room coordinator.

“It’s an opportunity to take our talents down there and help to educate their care workers,” said Jake Poling, certified scrub technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Buckhannon. “A little bit of something goes a long way.”

Long said that most of those traveling are local to Upshur County, but that others who are joining the group live as far away as Maryland.

Long said that until about four years ago, there was almost no form of a national health system in Belize. Only those who had money could afford to be treated.

Now in Belize, there is a national clinic system where patients can be treated by a health care nurse in the villages and the country is trying to expand on that, Long said. Even if patients can afford treatment, there are no MRIs or radiation therapy in the country. Chemotherapy exists only in “a few spotty places,” she said, adding she believes there is only one CAT scanner in the entire country.

The services of the mission group will be offered completely free and paid for with donations and contributions. The funds for the trip were provided by personal and organizational donations, group fundraisers and the Pallottine Sisters.

After the Blessing of the Hands, members traveled to two local office locations to load items and equipment for the mission trip.

Dave Long said the members take all of their own supplies with them. Members will board an airplane Saturday to Belize, where they will stay for a week.

“Once you make this trip and you see the need of the people in Belize, it’s just something that I feel now that I have to do every year because the need is there and we have the ability to provide the care for the people down there,” Dave Long said. “So I think it’s just really important that we do that.”