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Local medical professionals make a difference overseas

Tanya Spoon examines children during one of her visits to Sierra Leone with Children of the Nations. (Courtesy Photo)Some people spend vacations traveling, others perhaps prefer to catch up on home remodeling or other projects. For many Kitsap medical providers, however, vacation time is an extension of their professional lives — helping others, only not as close to home.

Whether they are physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses or medical technicians, these local professionals choose to spend their time doing pro bono medical work overseas. Often times they work with orphan kids or poor families, and usually they answer a call to help in areas that have no access to their specialty or medical care altogether.

“I think all of us in this profession have an underlying sense of obligation to do what we can within our pool of resources to take care of sick and injured people. It’s built into our genetics as doctors because we feel privileged to be in this profession,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, vascular surgeon at The Doctors Clinic and Harrison Medical Center chief of surgery.

Bernstein spent two weeks this spring at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany to provide his expertise to soldiers returning from Afghanistan. In addition to performing trauma surgeries, making rounds and giving consultations, he gave a lecture about blunt aortic injuries.

“I have a busy practice and I thought this was a good opportunity to help our soldiers and a good professional opportunity,” said Bernstein, who’s been practicing for 25 years.

He said he was surprised to see so much trauma among soldiers from the Middle East since domestically, the news reports have tapered off. The main difference between his experience there and at his practice at the Salmon Medical Center — and the best part of the trip — was the level of collaboration with other physicians and medical staff, he said.

“I was very impressed by their compassion and their personal touch in working with the patients,” he said.

Dr. Bernie Brown of North Kitsap Pediatrics has been donating his time for years at a public health clinic in a village in Baja, Mexico. Clinics in Mexico are run by the government and often are staffed only by nurses. Some have physicians who are new medical school graduates.

Brown, who has property in Baja, has been traveling to the area at least six times a year since 1996, spending a day at the clinic. Most times, he sees children with asthma and other pulmonary conditions. When he first started at the clinic, there was a lack of asthma treatment in Mexico so Brown provided medication and nebulators.

For the past four years he’s been buying staple foods instead, along with gifts for 75-80 kids at Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. Before going on the trips, he spends $500 or more at Costco on the foods, then makes 20 to 25 family bundles. When he arrives in Mexico, he drives around with the nurses to give the food to poor families. He’s also received donations for the deliveries from the Kitsap County Medical Society Foundation and has recruited others to help, including board member Dr. Glen Carlson and his family.

“I’m a Christian and I feel an obligation to help my fellow men,” Brown said. “But it’s an obligation I do joyfully…I take my time, money and expertise and I concentrate it on one area where I can make significant impact.”

The best part is the gratification from making that impact, said Brown, who’s been in practice in Kitsap for 40 years. He recommends that people who want to support that kind of work make a donation to the medical society’s foundation (they can specify the funds to go to foreign missions).

Another Kitsap-based organization that supports medical missions is Children of the Nations. Headquartered in Silverdale, the nonprofit serves orphaned and destitute children in several African countries as well as Haiti and Dominican Republic. Local medical professionals from a variety of specialties are among the volunteers.

Tanya Spoon, a registered nurse with a family practice in Silverdale, is a medical liaison for Africa and normally goes to Sierra Leone for three to four weeks in the summer with her husband, Dave, who works for the nonprofit full time. Starting this December, however, she plans to spend three months there.

“It’s something we do as a couple. It’s where we feel we need to be,” she said.

The village where Spoon works is about 200 miles into the jungle and has no running water or power. While there, she oversees nurses, provides physical exams and does outreach. “The kids we take care of are like our family. We get to build relationships in the community where we work,” she said. “The kids are the best part.”

Dr. Dale Holdren of Kitsap Eye Physicians has traveled to the Dominican Republican four times and said he does it for the same reason he went into medicine. “I felt a calling personally, professionally and spiritually,” he said.

Holdren’s wife, Rose, is a dentist and the couple heard about the organization at church about 15 years ago. “They needed an eye doctor and a dentist. We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re being called,’” he said.

His most recent trip was last November. The biggest need of his skills is for eye surgery, especially for cataracts, but he also does eye exams and other things.

Holdren gives up seven to nine days of his vacation time to serve in the villages, where there is a big shortage of specialists.

“The best part is seeing the huge impact it has on the people there,” he said. “It’s also a different atmosphere, more relaxing — we just practice medicine.”

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