I’ve traveled a lot. If I wrote a list of the countries I have visited or lived in, it would seem I have seen much of the world. Similar to the irony of gaining knowledge only to realize how much knowledge you lack, however, the more I come to know the people and places of the world, the more I realize there is to know. Despite acknowledging the vastness of the world and its people, I have learned a few things through what I have seen and experienced. I have witnessed poor people who do not know they are poor; whole cultures that see beauty in spending time with family; happiness and generosity in poverty; and kindness to strangers.
Indeed, travel can be a teacher. I shared one such experience with my family as we joined a medical mission team on a trip to Guatemala last year. These Coeur d’Alene medical professionals paid their own way and donated expensive supplies to spend a week providing free medical services to people in a remote area of Guatemala. Led by Mike Oswald, these members of the Coeur d’Alene community were eager to share the good in their lives to improve the lives of others.
Mike has been drawn to the Spanish language and Hispanic cultures since he was a teenager. Following years spent in the classroom of an influential high school Spanish teacher, Mike lived as a missionary in Columbia for two years. After returning from his mission, he studied to become a nurse anesthetist and began raising a family. Before long, he felt an urge to do more. “Serving a mission and learning to speak Spanish were such a huge part of my life. I wanted to be able to help other people with my medical talent and language ability,” remembers Mike. He became involved with the Coeur d’Alene Eye Institute, joining them on medical mission trips to Guatemala. His first trip was in 2007. “It was the perfect scenario of everything God had taught me to do in my life,” Mike explains.
As Mike made several service trips to Guatemala with the Eye Institute, he began to take on more responsibility for the medical teams. He became the point person for getting equipment and supplies through customs, organizing medication and anesthetic, and handling the paperwork. In addition to his service as an anesthetist, he came to know the details of organizing a medical mission.
“Every time I came home and told people about my experience in Guatemala,” Mike remembers, “they’d say, ‘I really want to do that!’” This enthusiasm encouraged Mike to find a way to take general surgeons and a myriad of interested medical specialists to provide services in Guatemala. “I felt a pull to do it, even though leading my own team would definitely be more work. It had been easy to tag along and take care of anesthetics. I had loved it!” says Mike. But he knew he needed to share this opportunity with more people. “I just felt in my heart I had the resources to lead my own team down there,” Mike explains.
It’s an enormous responsibility to lead a medical mission in Guatemala. Going into Guatemala City to get forms, vetting members of the team and establishing the license to practice medicine in Guatemala are a few of the countless nuances Mike had to learn. He admits, “The logistical details are mind-boggling. Plus, bad things can happen when you’re in the middle of nowhere. But I’m as prepared as I possibly can be. I go down with a prayer in my heart. And nothing bad has ever happened.”
Mike feels real passion for this work and is always thinking of ways to improve the service he and his teams can provide. He has developed close working relationships with local people to assist them in serving those most in need. He’s been able to coordinate the Coeur d’Alene medical teams with local doctors. They work together to provide needed medical care. Mike has also begun setting up a fund to pay for any problems that may arise for patients once the medical team has returned to the United States.
The question always on Mike’s mind is: “How do we help the most needy—the poorest of the poor? I want to find people who can’t even pay the $200 required at national hospitals.” Mike’s local friends and coordinators publicize the arrival of the Coeur d’Alene medical teams, but Mike is trying to reach those who live too remotely or lack literacy and means of obtaining this information. He adds, “We’re not going down there to save the world. Even if we go down and just help one person, we change their life. That’s huge to me!”
Mike now leads a medical team from the Coeur d’Alene community to Guatemala twice a year. The majority do not speak Spanish, but he says he encourages them to learn it. “What makes me tick is the desire to know these people,” explains Mike. “Unless you speak their language, it’s hard to connect in that way.” On average, Mike takes about 20 people to Guatemala each trip. “I like to take lay people outside of the medical group, too. And I like to expose each of them to the community. We provide service to schools and orphanages, too. It’s more than just service inside the hospital.”
There are several medical teams that go to Guatemala and other countries in need. For Mike, the goal is to provide even more than needed medical service. He wants his teams to come to understand and connect with the Guatemalan people. “You feel joy when you get to know the people,” he says. “I feel like Guatemala is home now because we have so many friends there.”
Mike Oswald, his generous medical teams and the many other teams of medical professionals who provide worldwide care for those most in need are inspiring! For most, this kind of medical service is not a possibility. But sharing the good in our lives to improve the lives of others is. In fact, my travels have taught me to live better at home. Be friendly and kind to a stranger. Share a homemade treat with a neighbor. Pitch in with a community service project. Share your talents, abilities and blessings with others. You don’t have to travel to make the world a better place.