As students settle into another school year, they’ve likely asked each other the same question over and over again: “What did you do this summer?” If you asked that of Robert Rathmann, RN, PCCN, a nurse on Penn Presbyterian Medical Center’s Cupp 3 East, he’d reply that he’s had pretty much the same answer for 15 years. When summer rolls around, he heads south — not to lounge on the beach or sip poolside beverages, but to provide life-changing medical care to children in South America. This year, Rathmann, a longtime medical volunteer with Healing the Children, helped to ensure that nearly 200 children in Colombia could have their own exciting answer to their classmates’ summertime questions.
Healing the Children (HTC) is a non-profit organization that provides free medical care to children across the globe, regardless of their family’s finances, insurance status, or location. Since 1979, HTC’s teams of volunteers — surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical professionals — have helped more than 250,000 children in 95 countries by providing life-changing treatment for patients with cleft lips and palates, club feet, heart problems, urological diseases, and other disfiguring or congenital deformities.
“For four years, I’ve invited my colleagues to join me in order to share that spirit of global volunteerism at Presby,” said Rathmann. “And even though the program has expanded per trip, it still feels like a family. The volunteers are great, the local staff are great, and making a difference with compassionate experts brings such a sense of accomplishment.”
This year, Rathmann brought fellow Cupp 3 East nurse Matthew Miller, RN, and HVICU nurse Marisa Stephens, BSN, RN, along on the HTC’s 26th annual trip to Neiva, Colombia. In Neiva, interdisciplinary teamwork isn’t limited to the operating room. Each trip is characterized by excellent coordination between the volunteers, local physicians at Hernando Moncaleano Perdomo University Hospital, federal and city governments, and Colombian Air Force, which airlifted two patients from their homes. Colombian media outlets noted that more than 600 children and their families made the long trek via car, train, and even foot from their rural homes to seek treatment that normally can cost as much as 40 million pesos.
Over ten days, Rathmann, Miller, and Stephens screened hundreds of patients, assisted the team during nearly 200 surgical procedures, and shared best practices with their new international colleagues. A new post-operative care program was also set up this year to ensure the best outcome for each patient even after the volunteers left. The 14-hour days were intense and exhausting, but for first-time volunteer Miller, “so rewarding.”
“It really was incredible. People traveled for so long to line up for care at our clinic, and they showed such gratitude. One patient even came back after his surgery and gave us ponchos to show his appreciation,” he continued. “It was also a really valuable learning experience because we saw medical conditions that we don’t see as frequently on our units at home. Also, the hospital was well-equipped, but the PACU still wasn’t quite as advanced as ours, so we had to practice making do with what was available. This was always something I wanted to do, and I’ll definitely be back.”
Stephens, who was excited for the opportunity to sharpen both her nursing and Spanish skills, echoes that sentiment. “I’ve done service trips before, but this was the first to draw on my nursing experience. It couldn’t have been more rewarding. The families were so appreciative, and the team was so welcoming. They put up with my below-average Spanish and made me feel like an important part of the team! Coming home was a wake-up call, and it really made me appreciate the abundance of resources we have here.”