BY EMILY KULKUS
Several times a year, Upstate nurse Susan Thomas packs two big suitcases — one new and one tattered — and heads to the airport. One suitcase is full of her own belongings; the other is from a thrift store, so she won’t mind leaving it behind — and filled with medical supplies, toothbrushes, underwear, socks and shoes.
Thomas, a labor and delivery nurse at Upstate Community Hospital, journeys to Guatemala on her own dime several times each year to volunteer at a medical clinic that serves the poor. The clinic is staffed through Health Talents International, a faith-based nonprofit that coordinates nurses, doctors and volunteers to treat patients and perform surgeries for Guatemalans with little access to quality health care.
For one week each month the clinic in Monte Llano, about 90 minutes from the southern shore, conducts between 70 and 90 surgeries in three operating rooms, running simultaneously starting at 7:30 a.m. each day. Surgeries include bladder repairs, hernia corrections, gallbladder removals, cleft lip and palate reconstruction and others. Not only is everyone who works there a volunteer — from the surgeons and anesthesiologists to the nurses and recovery room staff — but everyone has also paid his or her own way.
For Thomas, that includes a plane ticket that can cost $500 to $1,400, and a $650 volunteer fee that pays for her room, meals and supplies to stock the clinic and operating rooms.
Her schedule is about the same each time she volunteers. She usually arrives in Guatemala on a Saturday, and she and the 50-person staff begin setting up the operating rooms. She attends church on Sunday morning. Surgeries begin that afternoon and continue through Thursday evening. The patients have time to stabilize before the medical volunteers fly out Friday or Saturday, she said.
The days are long and demanding, Thomas said. She is usually physically exhausted and emotionally spent by the time she flies home. But the need is great in Guatemala, a historically poor country that has endured recent earthquakes and volcano eruptions and struggles with access to quality health care. It’s what keeps her going back, year after year.
“It really comes back to why do you become a nurse,” she said. “I help people get through a major crisis situation, and it’s so refreshing helping somebody.”
Thomas has worked as a women’s health nurse and doula — a support person for pregnancy and childbirth — for 35 years and has worked at Upstate Community Hospital since 2013. Her first trip to South America was with her teenage daughter in the late 1990s. She has volunteered in Guatemala about 15 times since then. Her trips are not affiliated with Upstate.
This article is from the winter 2020 issue of Upstate Health magazine.