Providing health care for kids across borders
Somewhere in Santiago de Cali, a Colombian boy sporting a Chicago White Sox cap is playing with his friends. He is healthy and mobile thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Christopher Bergin.
Dr. Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., has traveled to the South American country on medical mission trips for the past four years.
He returned to Colombia in May with Global Spine Outreach and saw first-hand the progress his young patient with a spinal deformity was making.
“He’s had half a dozen surgeries but he’s now doing very well,” Dr. Bergin beamed.
Global Spine Outreach is an Illinois nonprofit that provides spinal surgeries and treatment to underprivileged children around the world who otherwise would not receive care.
The organization’s medical volunteers partner with and work alongside local physicians to correct spinal deformities, remove pain, and often prevent paralysis and extend life.
Global Spine Outreach organizes mission trips to Colombia twice a year. Last month it deployed a team of 10 volunteers, including surgeons, instrument and intraoperative neuromonitoring technicians, and physical therapists. Over the course of a week, Dr. Bergin and other medical staff performed 12 surgeries and evaluated 75 children at Fundación Valle del Lili hospital.
Some of the young patients suffer from congential spinal problems related to a developmental disorder, such as spina bifida, or rare hereditary syndromes. In some instances, spinal deformities can affect heart and lung function, cause partial paralysis, and shorten lifespan, Dr. Bergin explained.
However, he said, for most children the most devastating aspect of their deformities is psychological distress. Surgery, then, becomes a means for making cosmetic improvements that boost self-image and esteem, Dr. Bergin said.
Because of the complexities of the surgeries, Global Spine Outreach trains and supports staff on the ground to ensure its work is sustainable. Two Colombian surgeons specialized in orthopedics and neurosurgery offer year-round continued care, like treating infections and tighten loose screws.
Dr. Bergin said kid patients dress in their Sunday best when visiting the hospital. And despite living in extreme poverty, the patients’ families often give doctors gifts as a token of thanks, he said.
“Quality health care is expected in the U.S.,” Dr. Bergin said. “Since the same services are not always available or accessible in Colombia, people are extra appreciative.”
Dr. Bergin hopes to leverage his experiences helping Colombian children to develop a pediatric program locally.
“These trips make us enjoy what we as doctors do on a daily basis and to appreciate what we have at home,” he said. For more information visit http://globalspineoutreach.org.
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