Jeanette says…

The following post is from our student Jeanette, recently nicknamed JJ by Helen.  She discusses her experiences on our most recent trip from the lens of re-entry to regular life.  Post-mission blues is a serious disorder!  Please enjoy her moving retelling of the mission.


La gente, the people

In the comfort of my own home, I realize I’m diagnosing myself with my first Medical Mission Trip withdrawal. In retrospect, the mission was life altering and most of the impact was made by la gente, the people, I met on the trip. Small or tall, these people etched each of their names into a special place within me.

To begin, the Healing the Children team was incredible. It was a large gathering of diverse people, all vastly knowledgeable in their own field. From the talented photographers who captured each smile and hug, nurses and doctors who stopped at nothing to ensure each case was a success story. I cannot forget to mention an anesthesiologist who allowed two lowly speech graduate students (myself and Bruna) to overlook amazing surgeries and shadow a case for a day while explaining every step of the process thoroughly. Furthermore, professors became mentors who paved a path of knowledge even deeper within my growing and inquisitive speechie mind. Each client we consulted gave me the opportunity to piece together their individual puzzle, putting what I’ve leaned in the classroom to work, in a real life setting. The education fostered within these days will forever go unmatched and irreplaceable. The bonds shared over delicious Colombian cuisine on a mountaintop restaurant, stories shared between roommates or humbling open- door bus rides cannot be explained.

Being back in America is no treat without UNIMA, a 21 year old organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life and help place a smile back on to children and young people who present genetic problems such as cleft lip and palates. UNIMA helps families whom are among the most vulnerable populations in Colombia, through the coordination of actions with professionals and national and international institutions, such as Healing the Children. This organization is ran by women who enforce the idea that ladies are “poderosa y hermosa,” powerful and beautiful. These amazing ladies catered to our team endlessly, tirelessly and passionately. We each brought snacks from the states, expecting long, hungry days at the hospital. We were pleasantly greeted every single day with coffee, pastelitos,  pastries and lunches fit for kings and queens. They took great care in making sure that even clients who weren’t there for surgeries saw the speech team, because they were aware of how important speech therapy is. Their newest goal for their patients are to enable more access to speech therapy services, which is groundbreaking in Colombia within itself. How I wish to have packed the UNIMA team up in my luggage, but alas, I was only allowed a carry on!

On the frontline of this trip were many parents who fought for their children to be screened and hoped for the surgeries that would ensure a better life. These parents often traveled hours to Santa Marta despite their limited resources, but all with a common goal: to help their children. The parents on this trip often left me speechless, humbled and in tears. The gratitude in their eyes, in the strength of their hugs and in the power of their words will never leave me. One parent wished for God to kiss our toes and hands to help us continue our work in helping children like hers. These parents solidified my thought that my main purpose here on earth is to help as many people in any way I can. The resilience in each parent showed me that no matter where you’re from, anything is possible if you fight for it.

Finally and most importantly, each and every child that I came across had hope, power and love gushing from their bodies. Each hug and every wide eye and smiling face looking up at me motivated my soul.The bright smile that would flash across their faces when we showed them a trick to enhance their speech was such an intrinsic, powerful feeling. I felt super human at times- Jeanette Torres, Super Speechie! In retrospect, it was the children who were superheroes in their own right, not I. I guess that’s the thing with super heroes: they have the ability to make you feel as important as they are.

Para la gente, to the people who involved in all aspects of the trip, thank you endlessly.


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10,000 #hscares

The president of HTCNE is Bob Ryan, who joined in on this and many other trips.  Bob is an attorney, a devoted board member and an avid golfer. To make a very long story short, Bob connected with Henry Schein Cares Foundation, and they generously sponsored $10,000 of medical equipment for this trip.  Our Queen of Nurses (ok, that SHOULD be her title, anyway) Debbie Fritz was able to “go shopping” for what we needed in the Henry Schein Medical catalog to spend the money–what an amazing gift!

Below, I’ve included the HSCF mission statement.  It aligns so well with what we do–let’s hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!  Thanks to HSCF for “helping health happen” this week in Colombia.


The Henry Schein Cares Foundation “helps health happen” by expanding access to care for at-risk and underserved populations globally through the support of not-for-profit organizations, institutions, and communities dedicated to increasing the delivery of health education and care. The work of the Henry Schein Cares Foundation targets those with some of the most limited access to care through a focus on three areas: wellness, prevention, and treatment; emergency preparedness and relief; and capacity building.

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Twenty-four hours in a day.

One baby boy, 14 months old, did very poorly in surgery, due to not tolerating anesthesia well.  He ended up in the ICU, with round-the-clock care by Healing the Children, Northeast.  He is a child with many health concerns, some of which were not previously known.  It was up and down, back and forth…in the end, he was fine.

Those who stayed with him all night long, our pediatrician Dave Fenner being one, went back to the hotel in the afternoons to catch a few hours’ nap, and returned again, to spend the night monitoring his condition through the wee hours.

By Friday, when it was time to pack up and go, he was fit as a fiddle, in Mom’s arms.  Nobody would be able to tell by looking at him that there was ever a problem.  The overnight team…they looked a bit worse for wear.  I saw quite a few team members wipe away tears as we said goodbye to this little boy.  He has a sweet little cupid’s bow now, and quite a story to tell.

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Bruna says…

The following post is from our student, Bruna.

As a Brazilian-born graduate student in the field of Speech-Language Pathology, I am so blessed to have been given the opportunity to join this medical mission by Healing the Children to Santa Marta, Colombia. 

This medical mission has been the most gratifying opportunity I’ve ever had to serve others in my life. Giving selflessly is very difficult but when you encounter people who need it and are so grateful, it becomes an easier task. 

I have enjoyed all parts of this trip so far, from some RnR to screening day to therapeutic seasons and counseling. Along with Dr. Berkowitz and Dr. Buhler, Jeanette and I became advocates for speech and language therapy for children with cleft lip/palate. 

It is, however, sad to say that the number of fonoaudiólogos (SLPs) in Colombia are low compared to the United States. Additionally, parents cannot afford to pay for services. Therefore, we needed to train the parents of children with cleft lip/palate in order for them to provide therapy for their children. 

Overall I loved this opportunity and thank Drs. Buhler and Berkowitz, Mercy College Communication Disorders Scholarship Fund, Healing the Children Northeast, and UNIMA for having me be a small part of this immense mission. 

Kind Regards,

Bruna Carbelim Duran

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There is always someone with an innovative idea on every trip, and this trip it was Eddie.  Jairo Eduardo Castillo, MD, from Yale New Haven Hospital offered us the chance for our students to follow  a patient from start to finish.  What an amazing idea!  Jeanette and Bruna started in anesthesia intake, through induction (going to sleep), surgery, waking up from anesthesia, post-anesthesia care unit and into mom’s/dad’s arms.

Eddie and his wife, Amparo, grew up in Colombia, and are so happy to have the opportunity to give back.  They are devoted to the children of Colombia, and to Healing the Children, Northeast.  But on this trip, the biggest gift Eddie gave was to our students.

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We have two wonderful students, and a two room suite, so we can break into two teams when we are busy. As always, Helen and I let the students take the lead, and Bruna and Jeanette are doing a fantastic job.  Our office has air conditioning, and wifi…we are feeling very spoiled!

Patients have been coming every day, all day. Most have hypernasality in their speech as a result of their history of cleft palate.  We work with them on getting a better oral flow and on correcting any articulation errors. We have had a few patients with clefts that cannot be fixed surgically, and the wonderful volunteer women of Unima arranged for these patients to have false palates made (like a bite plate), to separate the oral and nasal cavities into two.

In addition to the patients we see in our office, we go up to the post-operative wards and visit with the families.  We instruct the families on how to work with the child until we see them again next year.  These small innovations have made a great difference in the children we have seen over the years in Peru.  I’ll outline two small but meaningful interventions we do.

1.  Babies who have just had the cleft lip repaired, and who have a cleft palate, must return in one year to have the palate surgery.  During this year, we expect all the sounds the baby produces to be coming through the nose (because the nose and mouth are basically one big cavity) and that’s ok.  But, we do not want the babies to produce what we call “glottal stops,” which is the sound in the middle of “uh-oh.”  That is a sound that does not occur in Spanish, but babies with cleft palate are very likely to make them, and then have trouble giving them up once the palate is closed.  We work with the parents on learning the difference between the preferred sounds, which are to be celebrated,  and the glottal, which is to be ignored.   The parents who are able to implement this small intervention find that the sounds are in place and ready when the palate is closed.

2.  For babies and older children who have just had the palate repaired, we work on teaching the parents the difference between oral and nasal flow.  The one cavity has now been divided into two!  Although the kids are tired after surgery, we work with the parents before and after,  and teach and re-teach about how to help the kids along.  Every family gets simple handouts (prepared by alum Lindsay Naylor) and, of course, regalitos (little gifts).

So, it’s been a hectic few days, but the Unima ladies have looked after all the details and the parents are so very appreciative.  Even the security guard and cleaning woman have been so good to us.

As we wave good bye to the children as they are discharged, we know we have done all we can to help them along on their road, to be the best communicators they can be.

Hey, it’s 2 pm.  Maybe the Unima ladies have un cafecito for us!

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One hundred and sixty six

Screening day starts early, and crowd control is key.  Parents have traveled with their kids from six, seven, ten hours away. They may have scrimped and saved to get the bus fare.  People are anxious to be seen and hope to get on the surgical schedule.  

Every child must be examined for their suitability for surgery; for example, babies who weigh less than 10 pounds might be turned away.  So might children with colds or chest infections.  Parents are of course very disappointed when this happens.  They will most likely wait a year to have another chance at surgery, such a very long time for a child.

The speech team sees many of the children on screening day, but not the very youngest.  These families we see on the ward, after surgery most typically.  We also screen many children who are not surgical candidates this time, but need speech therapy.  We take some baseline measures and give appointments later in the week.  Sometimes we will have children return a few times in the week if they live nearby.  We prepare handouts for the parents, because they will be the speech terapists going forward.  We are starting to see some children in Colombia receive speech services,but the majority will not be able to get any follow-up care.

We got on the bus at 730 am, and screened 166 children…maybe more.  We returned to the hotel around 7 and wrote up the surgical schedule for the week.  Then, we quickly freshened up and jumped back on the bus for a wonderful dinner and dancing al fresco at a restaurant high on a hill overlooking the city.  Where did we get the energy to dance?  I do not know, but dance we did.

So, we are ready for a long week of therapy and surgery, take-out food at the hospital for dinner, and interprofessional teaching and learning.  We never quite know what we will experience but we are off and running.

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