Written by Julie Mondimore Wilke Photos by Joan Pahoyo
When operating room nurse Sharon Cummings first saw the white strips of exam-table paper billowing from a clothesline and buckets of bleach-soaked surgical sponges at Buen Pastor Hospital in San Quintin, Mexico, she thought she may have stepped through the looking glass.
“I knew we were going to a poor area that needed our help, but I wasn’t prepared for what we found,” Sharon says. Along with her husband, Dr. Thomas Cummings, Sharon had signed up for an impromptu mission with the San Luis Obispo-based Gold Coast chapter of Flying Samaritans International.
The nonprofit organization is made up of doctors, nurses, pilots, translators and other volunteers who bring free medical care to people in poor and remote villages in Mexico such as San Quintin, a small town south of Ensenada. Tom, an anesthesiologist at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, was at work when he first learned about a call for volunteers.
“I had heard about the Flying Samaritans and thought about volunteering as a pilot since I fly,” the doctor says. “When I found out about the specialty clinic—that I could go down as a pilot and do anesthesia—I knew it was a good fit for me.”
Sharon, also a licensed pilot as well as a nurse, knew Tom and the other volunteers could use her help in the hospital and in the air. She signed up to go, too. That was in October 2002. It became the start of a journey the couple is still on today.
“I thought it would be a one-time thing,” Sharon says, “but once we started, we were hooked in.”
Gathering the basics
Nurses told Sharon the hospital was so poor they had to wash exam-table paper in bleach, hang it to dry and reuse it. Surgical sponges were also routinely soaked in bleach so they could also be used again.
The hospital, run by Medical Director Dr. Alejandro Gonzales, does a lot with very little. “When we first started going down to Buen Pastor, no one knew exactly what was needed,” the nurse remembers.
While visiting doctors brought some medical supplies, the hospital was in dire need of basics like operating tables, lights, sutures and other disposable supplies. The doctor and nurse duo also make it their personal mission to bring much-needed supplies with them every time they return.
“When our hospital would upgrade, I would ask for the old equipment,” Sharon says. “We started collecting donations, outdated supplies, anything that could help and wasn’t needed here, and would take it down to Mexico.”
Tom and Sharon fly their own six-seater Beechcraft Bonanza and fill it “floor to ceiling” each mission with donated supplies. Of all the Flying Samaritan clinics, the one in San Quintin is the only one to provide surgical procedures to those in need.
“The other chapters offer family practice-type care, but we are the only one that does surgeries,” Sharon explains. “People are in such desperate need of procedures, they travel up to 15 hours by bus or sometimes walk for miles just to be seen.”
The San Quintin-based specialty clinic is usually scheduled on the third weekend of the month, and each three-day mission operates at a break-neck pace offering a different surgical focus during each trip. Volunteer doctors perform urological and gynecological, ear-nose-throat, plastic, orthopedic and general surgeries depending on the scheduled specialist.
During a recent constructive and plastic surgery clinic, the team performed 12 procedures, including a cleft lip revision, a mastectomy and an eyelid reconstruction. The surgeons make an average of two trips a year but since every surgery needs an anesthesiologist and an operating room nurse, Tom and Sharon are needed on almost every trip. “Right now, we go down about six to eight times a year,” Tom says.
Sharon, Tom and the rest of that month’s team leave on Friday mornings and hit the ground running. When she started volunteering, the nurse recalls it was “more than a bit chaotic.”
Nowadays they have a system down. Neither Sharon nor Tom speaks Spanish, so they have a translator at Buen Pastor who helps the team assess the people hoping for surgical help. Their current translator has been helping the Flying Sams for two years and is getting to be “a pretty good diagnostician.”
If the translator’s not there, Sharon uses paper and pencil and “draws, points, whatever it takes” to try and figure out what the patients and hospital staff need.
Surgeries typically start Friday night. After a few hours of rest, the team is back at the hospital by 8 a.m. Saturday morning, working until around 10 p.m. to try and accommodate as many people as possible. After checking in on the patients Sunday morning, Sharon and Tom fly back home and get ready to go to their day jobs in Ventura on Monday.
Not only do all the Flying Sams doctors, nurses, pilots and staff volunteer their time, the organization also pays Buen Pastor a fee of around $1,500 each time a clinic is held there. The fee covers the cost of electricity, water, staff and follow-up doctor fees the nonprofit incurs. Until three years ago, that fee was covered by a private benefactor.
“This was a huge loss for us,” Sharon says. “When the fee was covered, we could use Flying Sams fundraising dollars for supplies but now we need to use that money to cover these operating costs.” Sharon, Tom and the rest of the Gold Coast Flying Sams are hopeful another private or corporate donor might step in to cover this expense.
“Every time we go, we make a dent, but we are sadly still turning people away,” says Tom. “So we make plans for the next clinic, ask people to come back and hope we can reach more people who need surgery.” The couple is motivated “We’ll keep going until we’re too old to fly,” Sharon promises.
The Flying Samaritans organization was founded in 1961 when American pilot Aileen Saunders Mellott and her friends were forced to make an emergency landing near the remote village of El Rosario, Mexico. Grateful for the assistance they received and moved by the poverty they saw, Saunders Mellott and her friends, one of whom was a doctor, returned with clothing, food and other supplies. What they found was the village, with no regular medical services, needed a doctor most of all.
With 19 clinics organized in 10 chapters, the Flying Samaritans is now an international organization with over 1,500 members. Visit www.flyingsams.org for more information.