Message from Las MelvinasBarranquilla, Colombia. The patient, a man in his mid-50s, lies down on the bright blue webbing of a folding cot. A small table is next to the cot. A cardboard box is perched on it. A clip-on lamp clings to the side of the box, focused on his face.

Welcome to the operating room. It is one of the many acts of care set up all around the world by Medical Ministries International.

John Graham, a Canadian eye doctor, checks his sterile supply table. He carefully holds out his hands with new sterile rubber gloves. A chair is slid under him. He begins to use a scalpel, removing the opaque, milky growth that covers much of the patient’s left eye. The procedure, he says, is called an “excision of pterygium.”

After two days of near-vision testing, I’ve seen how common the malady is. It can lead to blindness or near blindness. It happens to people in harsh tropical climates, often to women who cook over open fires.

I have the opportunity to watch Graham for an odd reason: The governor has declared today to be a “no motorcycles” day. This brings a measure of peace to a city in which three lanes of traffic routinely occupy two lanes of road. But it also brings much of daily life to a standstill: The ubiquitous small motorcycles are the taxis of the poor. Passengers ride behind the driver, protected with scruffy one-size-fits-all helmets. They wear yet scruffier reflective vests. So we have fewer patients than expected--- though the count is still over 400 for the day.

Four days earlier, on a Saturday, more than 50 volunteers gathered at Miami International Airport for the final logistic step. Our mission is to set up a two-week clinic in Las Malvinas, a poor barrio just inside the circumferential highway that surrounds Barranquilla. Barranquilla is an industrial city of 1.5 million. It is the fourth largest city in Colombia, due east from photogenic Cartagena.

Each of us is given a hockey bag containing 50 pounds of medical equipment, medical supplies, or eyeglasses that have been collected for this trip. About a third of the volunteers are Americans; two-thirds are Canadians.

We have several ophthalmologists, an anesthesiologist, a general practitioner, nurses and optometrists. But it is also possible to go as a “general helper.” That’s what my wife and I are, having been recruited by Dr. Joe Fammartino, a veteran of many trips. He is the medical director for this mission.

Sunday afternoon we visit the school. We start turning it into an instant clinic, creating 13 stations that range from registration, distant- and near-vision testing, auto-refraction, three levels of consulting and further testing, scheduling for cataract surgeries in a remote operating room, the on-site procedure room and the fitting rooms.

Monday morning we arrive at 8. We see 363 patients during the day. By the end of the week we are rocking. We see 600 people in one day. The procedure count climbs. Most days have nearly a dozen cataract operations and even more pterygiums.

The accumulating stories are wonderful. Here’s one: Two elderly women, nearly blind, live together. Somehow, they get to the clinic. One is scheduled for cataract surgery. The other will wait until next year. They have no money and live in a house without running water. I see her at post-op the next day. When the bandages are removed, she sees for the first time in years. There literally isn’t a dry eye in the room.

Barbara Skinner, executive director of the mission, says we’ve seen nothing yet. We are in a new location. People from other areas may be afraid to come to Las Malvinas.

“But word gets out,” she says. The second Monday of a mission usually brings a major crowd.

She is spot on.

That morning, more than 1,400 people are lined up around the school. We go into high gear, but still send hundreds home early. We can’t possibly see that many people in a day.

On our last day we see only 200 people. We need to stop early to pack. I see Maria Albor, a woman I had tested earlier in the morning. She has a serious terigio. She is scheduled to see Dr. Graham. I walk her to his operating cot and give myself a new job, hand-holder, as he does the procedure.

In our ten days we see 4,683 patients, provide 3,972 with eyeglasses, operate on 116 cataracts, excise 139 pterygiums, and do 40 laser treatments.

I don’t think two governments could do such acts of coordination as the sponsoring Columbian church and MMI. Nor could two corporations.

This is not done with money or for money. It is done through faith, trust, and hope. It tells me to share the cup, because it will always be full.

On the web:

Medical Ministries International

Medical Ministries International Calendar

Wikipedia: Pterygium

CIA Factbook: Colombia

CIA Factbook: USA