Emergency medicine is often stressful and complex with doctors given little time for contemplation as they make critical medical decisions that may mean the difference between life and death.
Many doctors like to take relaxing vacations at a resort or island getaways to get away from the pressure. Dr. Jim Johnson is not one of those doctors. Dr. Johnson, who has been working in emergency medicine for 12 years and serves as Service Chief of the Emergency Department at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, N.C., chooses to “get away from it all” by going on trips to third world countries in support of medical and humanitarian missions.
In early April Dr. Johnson and 11 other people from Asheville traveled to Bolivia to work in support of a home for orphaned and abandoned children. The team from Asheville included a Veteran, Charlie Burns, who receives care at the VAMC in Asheville. Burns is a retired roofer with decades of experience in home construction and while in Bolivia he and Dr. Johnson worked side-by-side hauling rocks, mixing concrete and doing other low skilled labor in support of the orphanage while living in a remote village of Tacachia nestled deep in the Andes of South America.
Life is Tacachia is primitive. The village has limited access to electricity and there is no running water or indoor plumbing and certainly no access to cell phones or Internet. There are no diesel machines or other power tools to help with the work to be done. There is also no “Casa Depot” nearby if you need to pick up more supplies. Work is planned carefully and executed with manual labor. Lots of manual labor. This year Dr. Johnson and Mr. Burns worked to build retaining walls to terrace the steep land in the village of Tacachia. It is grueling work made easier by the love and hugs given by the children they went to support.
After leaving the remote village Dr. Johnson, Charlie, and their team returned to the capitol of La Paz. City life contrasted to the primitive village and this new location gave Dr. Johnson the chance to use his medical skills by offering a community health clinic. With the help of two nurses, Lisa Banks and Stephanie Carte who work at Mission Hospital in Asheville, Dr. Johnson performed more than 100 medical exams within a single day. The examinations of Bolivians were a far cry from a typical day in the Emergency Department. People of all ages and conditions came to see Dr. Johnson as he assessed their health, provided them with medical supplies, and gave them advice on how to seek additional treatments or improve their health. There were no eligibility checks or electronic charting, just a doctor and his nurses working directly with the local Bolivians to provide the best care possible.
Mr. Burns spent his time in the city doing roof repair and constructing “Peace Poles” that will be installed at the Children’s Home. Charlie works with homeless Veterans in Western NC and the peace poles are similar to ones that he has constructed and installed in our area. The wooden poles constructed in Bolivia are approximately 10 feet high, four sided, and inscribed in English, Spanish, Aymaran, and Quechuan, with the words, “May Peace Prevail Upon the Earth”.
This was not your typical vacation. However, Dr. Johnson and Charlie Burns are not your typical doctor and Veteran. So the next time you visit your doctor at the VA or see a fellow veteran in the waiting room, please remember they might being doing more with their time away from the VA than you suspect.
Randy McCracken is a U.S. Army Veteran, former medic, computer specialist, and now a My HealtheVet Coordinator for the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, NC.