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When Erica Garofalo, an RN at the MS Institute at Shepherd Center, and some of her fellow medical mission team members arrived for a house call in Los Robles, Nicaragua, they expected to go inside the home as usual.

Instead on that particular February afternoon, Garofalo says, they were instructed to trek across a cow pasture, go past a pair of outhouses, trudge up a hill and carefully navigate through a barbed wire fence. Their final destination: a shack-like dwelling.

Once inside, Garofalo and company found an elderly female stroke victim lying on a slab of plywood supported by egg crates. After realizing her blood pressure was extremely high, they found out the woman refused to take her medication, because she believed it was poison. The whole concept of taking meds to lower blood pressure proved foreign to her.

“It turned into a big educational session to teach the woman and her family the importance of taking blood pressure medication,” said Garofalo.

So goes one of many anecdotes from the recent Shepherd Center medical mission trip. A team of 11, comprised of Shepherd Center employees, colleagues, friends and family, spent at least six hours a day for five days in February aiding the ailing inhabitants of Los Robles.

Dr. Ben Thrower, medical director of the MS Institute at Shepherd Center, had ventured to Nicaragua with other groups two times before. It was then he learned about an organization called Comunidad Connect. This non-profit, developed in 2007, works to help pair locals with different development opportunities. In addition to clean water and youth programs, Comunidad Connect has a healthcare component.

So Thrower organized the small group to visit Nicaragua in early 2016 to assist Comunidad Connect’s medical arm. Under Dr. Thrower’s guidance, a portion of the group would serve as neurological specialists and focus on those issues, while pediatrician Dr. Karen Thrower, Ben’s wife, would wrangle a pediatric team.

Garofalo and her co-worker Danelle Bone, an RN at Shepherd Center, jumped at the chance to share their neurological knowledge.

“We saw patients in two different scenes,” Bone explained. “We either saw them in the health clinic in Los Robles or we traveled to individual homes and saw patients there.”

The teams would typically spend half of the day seeing patients in the morning from 8 a.m. until noon. They’d reconvene at 1:30 p.m. and visit with another round of patients until sometime between 5 and 7 p.m.

Serving as consultants to the local doctor wasn’t their only responsibility. An outside area at the tiny Clínica Los Robles also served as a classroom setting. With just a canopy above them, Garofalo, Bone and their associates would teach healthcare basics to a group of volunteer health workers with no medical training known as brigadistas.

“They volunteer their time to facilitate visits,” Bone said, “and get the doctor to whichever house he needs to go so he can take care of people. We came in with translators and taught CPR, first-aid and how to take blood pressure.”

Members of the team also found themselves rolling up their sleeves and diving into some labor. One of Comunidad Connect’s missions is to repay locals who volunteer time with resources that will help make their lives easier. This includes items such as water filters, more efficient ovens and cement floors.

“One day Erica and I mixed up cement and helped lay out the cement floors,” Bone said with a laugh. “It’s not easy if you haven’t done it.”

The rewarding moments, however, dwarfed any sweat equity. Bone and Garofalo both say they were struck by a particular young girl’s transformation.

At 3 months old, her father had thrown her against a wall and she suffered a brain injury. Last year, Dr. Thrower had seen the then 7-year-old girl, recommended medicine for her seizures and had given her physical therapy.

“Now she’s talking and she was very affectionate with us,” Bone said. “A whole world had been opened up for her with just the little help Dr. Thrower had done last year and our follow up with her this year. She came a long way with the little resources she had.”

Despite bunking in a horse stable-turned-dormitory, shooing off spiders and dealing with a bevy of other third world challenges, both Bone and Garofalo say they’d go back in an instant.

When the group prepared to leave, the village showed their appreciation by throwing a big going-away bash, complete with music and a treat-filled piñata.

“The whole village came to thank us,” Garofalo said. “We didn’t speak Spanish, but it didn’t matter. It was all about body language and smiles. It was amazing.”


Pulse readers: Have you or someone you know done something we need to hear about? A special volunteer gig, or a service or mission trip? Please let us know – we love it when you brag! Send details and contact information to Lane Holman, Special Projects Editor, at Lane.Holman@ajc.com Thanks!

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