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Helping Hands

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The city of Aquiraz, on the northeast coast of Brazil, is a vacation heaven. It has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with miles of fine white sand, clear turquoise waters, and a constant offshore breeze to keep things comfortable in the steady, 90-degree heat. Here visitors can sample the pleasures of South America’s largest aquatic park, marvel at the treasures in the Museum of Sacred Arts, and enjoy a still-favorable exchange rate.

But when Ann Bennett-Collazuol went to Aquiraz last August, the sights she saw were mostly limited to the inside of the Hospital Municipal de Aquiraz and the surrounding area. Despite the town’s popularity as a tourist destination, most of the local residents live in poverty. Each morning on her way to the hospital, Bennett-Collazuol marveled at their simple cinderblock houses, and the cows and chickens that wandered freely along the dirt roads; going back to her hotel after dark, she couldn’t help but notice the twinkling lights from the high-priced resorts nearby. Bennett-Collazuol, a 53-year-old nurse from Nyack, was in Aquiraz as part of a team of two dozen Hudson Valley medical volunteers who traveled to the town as part of a medical mission to provide health care to poor children in the area.

A young patient named Kettlen
relaxes just hours after surgery

This wasn’t Bennett-Collazuol’s first trip to South America. That took place when she was 20 years old — “one of those times in your life when you don’t really know what you want to do or where you’re going,” she says. She traveled to Ecuador with her Spanish professor for a cultural immersion course. In what proved to be a defining moment in her life, physician friends of her host family allowed Bennett-Collazuol to visit the clinics where they worked. “And there was one woman I’ll never forget,” she recalls. “She was all yellow from hepatitis, and she was just holding me. I didn’t know what to do, and the urge in me rose: I’ve got to be a nurse, I’ve got to learn how to take care of people. I found my direction.” Earlier this year, when a coworker told her that there was an opening on the Aquiraz mission, Bennett-Collazuol jumped at the chance. “I always felt I needed to get back to these people, to pay back for what I’ve been given in this incredible profession,” she says.

The HTC team, including nurse Ann Bennett-Collazuol (front row, third from right) and photographer Annabel Clark (front row, far right)

The trip was sponsored by Healing the Children Northeast, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that helps provide free medical and surgical treatment to needy children all over the world. The volunteer surgeons, physicians, anesthesiologists, nurses, and technicians pay their own way — flights, hotels, meals, visas — and provide all the supplies and equipment needed for their work. The team Bennett-Collazuol joined planned to focus on cleft lip and palate surgery, and drew most of its members from Hudson Valley hospitals, including Vassar Brothers and St. Francis in Poughkeepsie, and Fishkill Ambulatory Surgery Center. The team leader, Dr. Manoj Abraham, a facial plastic surgeon based in Poughkeepsie, had already been on about 10 missions. “To be able to provide life-altering care for these kids — who have minimal access to health care and these kinds of procedures — is immensely gratifying,” he says. “These trips are a way to make a difference.”

 

 

Evelyn, 5, waits to be screened by doctors

The Aquiraz mission began with months of raising money and gathering supplies. The kids at St. Paul’s School in Nyack, where Bennett-Collazuol works as the school nurse, were excited about the idea of helping children in another country; they brought in bags of toys, coloring books, and soccer balls, as well as monetary donations from their parents. The team came together for “packing parties,” getting to know each other as they catalogued and stowed the supplies needed to equip four operating rooms — everything from hand-washing gel to electrical transformers. “I don’t think I slept for a week before we left,” says Bennett-Collazuol. “You’re going so far out of your box, to a foreign country where you don’t know what you’re going to get into. You hear these stories about how the mothers walk for days with their children to bring them in for surgery.”

Bennett-Collazuol headed for Kennedy Airport at about 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in early August. A 10-hour flight was followed by another three-hour flight, and it was 4 a.m. Monday when the team got to their hotel — “a teeny-tiny place,” says Bennett-Collazuol, but “very homey.” Owned by a local couple, the hotel provided two meals a day, but there was no air conditioning, fans, or hot water.
After a shower, breakfast, and a couple of hours of rest, the group headed to the hospital to meet the staff, start screening patients, and set up the operating rooms. “That first day, it felt like 35 hours,” she says. “But you’re not tired because you’re so excited. It’s adrenaline and it’s joy.”

(From top): Evelyn and her mother walk into surgery. In the recovery room (center), Evelyn is surrounded by a team of volunteers. One day after her cleft palate surgery, Evelyn and her mother relax at home (bottom)

By 7 a.m. the next morning, the medical team was ready for surgery. Some of the procedures were extensive, and all were dramatic. “You see a little child walk in with a harelip,” says Bennett-Collazuol, who worked as a circulating nurse. “By the time surgery’s done, the child looks normal. Now the child can speak, the child can eat, the mother can look at the child and not feel guilty. Seeing that kind of transformation… I was crying, the mothers were crying.

“To be a part of something like that,” she continues, “is like a miracle. And to see these talented doctors, the work they do — it’s so pure, there’s no bureaucracy. It’s what you became a doctor or nurse for.”

There were three full surgical days on the Aquiraz mission; in all, 48 surgeries were performed, and many lives changed. The team also offered postoperative care and even home visits to make sure the parents fully understood the after-care instructions. They had study sheets with basic questions in Portuguese written out phonetically, and translators were on hand. But they discovered they didn’t always need a lot of words to communicate the important things.

One mother made a deep impression on Bennett-Collazuol. The woman came in alone with her five-year-old daughter, who needed extensive facial reconstruction. “Her daughter was in surgery for a long time, and she was just such a wreck, pacing the halls,” Bennett-Collazuol recalls. “I’m a rather large woman, and I wrapped her in my arms and hugged her until she calmed down. The feeling that passed was so intense.”

It was that level of emotion that made the experience so profound for Bennett-Collazuol. After returning to Nyack, “it was hard to get back into the normalcy of a regular day,” she says. “I’d rather be out there on missions, making huge differences in people’s lives.” Nevertheless, she says she is more joyful now. “Sometimes I feel I’m not doing enough here, but I’m more content because of this experience — it’s opened up a door. They talk about how global the world is, all one. I never felt it as much as through this. It wasn’t ‘them’ and ‘us’ — it was ‘we.’ I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

 

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