Isle medical team tends to hundreds


POSTED: Monday, November 30, 2009

An Aloha Medical Mission team of 17 volunteer doctors and nurses performed nearly 60 surgeries and treated more than 300 patients during a recent two-week mission to Myanmar.

Among them was an 11-year-old girl with a large eyelid tumor that invaded her eyeball, said Dr. Carl Lum, surgeon and team leader. He and Dr. Dirk Noyes excised the tumor, a benign lymphangioma arising from lymphatic vessels.

“;The family was looking dumbfounded,”; said Dr. Michael Healy, a pediatrician who examined the girl. “;They had trouble believing someone would help ordinary people. The best answer to that is, That's what we do.”;

Lum, a medical mission veteran, has taken teams to Myanmar five times, going twice last year, including a trip to the Irrawaddy Delta in July to provide medical care for victims of Cyclone Nargis in May.

The missions are sponsored by Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar's most respected monks.

Dr. Nicole Littenberg, Honolulu Medical Group internist, has been on four Aloha Medical missions, including the emergency Irrawaddy Delta trip last year. This was her first mission to Sagaing, where the group works at the Sitagu Hospital.

“;The working and living conditions were significantly better than during our trip to the delta,”; she said. “;We had great food, running water and near-constant electricity.”;

She said the families of Drs. Myo Nwe and Harry Taw, Burmese physicians in Hawaii who were on the mission, “;were invaluable in providing interpretation.”;

High-ranking members of the Buddhist monastery helped them through customs when they landed in Yangon Oct. 23, said Healy, who was on his fourth mission.

They boarded a prop plane with their equipment and flew about 55 miles into Mandalay, where a caravan of vehicles was waiting to take them to the Buddhist monastery, he said.

“;We met our friends, because now we know these people very well, got our bags off the truck and started rounding.”; It was about 8 p.m. and they were exhausted, but they had surgical patients waiting to be screened, he said.





        The Aloha Medical Mission will hold a benefit piano concert Dec. 10 at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall called “;Four Doctors, a Patient and a Sweetheart.”; For tickets, call the Blaisdell Box Office, 591-2211.

Six Aloha Medical missions were scheduled this year to provide surgery and medical care for indigent patients in the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar. Another major goal is to train and educate people in those countries to provide primary care, pediatrician Michael Healy said. “;One of our chief objectives for the Philippines is to set up cleft palate training.”;


AMM volunteers pay their own airfare, food and other expenses and take medications, surgical supplies and equipment that they leave in the countries.


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After breakfast at 6 the next morning, they began doing surgery, he said, noting the hospital had built an additional operating room. “;We saw them build it basically by hand last year, carrying concrete on their heads.”;

Many patients had walked four or five hours to the hospital to see the doctors, and the Buddhists gave those waiting for surgery a place to stay and food, Healy said.

Lum said the British ambassador's wife, Jane Heyn, saw the child with the large tumor covering her eye in a classroom in Rangoon, and when she heard an Aloha Medical Mission was coming there, she contacted Paula Helfrich.

Helfrich, a former Hilo resident and Aloha Medical Mission volunteer, is teaching English at the International School in Yangon.

“;They then made hasty arrangements to send the parents and the girl to Sagaing, a 12-hour bus trip, and gave them enough money for food and lodgings,”; Lum said.

The mother said the girl was born with a small lump over the upper eyelid, which gradually enlarged and blinded her, but they were too poor to see a doctor, Lum said.

There was no eye doctor on the mission, so Healy said he and Lum e-mailed ophthalmologists asking about reconstruction of the girl's eye. Honolulu ophthalmologist Dr. George Camara, a medical mission volunteer, immediately responded and explained what would be required, Healy said. The information was sent to Helfrich, who will be liaison for the girl's eye reconstruction, he said.

The hope is she will receive a prosthesis before the next mission there in October, he said, noting other countries also are sending medical missions to Sitagu Hospital, which has only one general surgeon. A German team was expected this month.