People often ask me why I do what I do. Why travel to the heart of the rain forest, into the middle of nowhere? How can I leave my family year after year for two weeks? The answer to that encompasses everything I face: “What am I here for?”
Since the year 2000, I have been doing medical relief work in the rain forest in Guyana, South America. As a pediatric nurse -and former burn nurse- I volunteer to give needed health care to the indigenous tribes, utilizing the skills that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has given me. This also shows that religious Jews can travel and help others while maintaining kashrut, Shabbat, and our religious principles.
For eight years, I volunteered with VeAhavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian Group that assists the needy at home and abroad. During the past four years, I have been travelling with the COMET team affiliated with the Peter A. Silverman Centre for International Health (PASCIH) at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. The COMET team has been very involved in looking at disease prevalence, and planning for future treatment of various diseases that we encounter. To quote from the PASCIH site, “The increasingly international nature of medical issues requires cooperative participation for the protection of the health and safety of our local population- and beyond.”
We set up mobile clinics and treat anyone we encounter who needs medical care. We have on loan some sophisticated portable medical equipment that has enabled us to detect unusual illnesses. As volunteers, all year long before our trip, we collect donations of supplies and medications. As volunteers, we also pay our own way. In addition to paying for our trip, food, gas etc., we need to buy any supplies that we don’t get donated.
As you can see by the pictures, living conditions are less than what is normal in “our” world here in Toronto. Most villages are remote, without electricity and running water. Many homes are just thatched roof huts, with no stoves, only cooking fires- which are right in the middle of their living space. One night we were eating dinner by flashlight in the dark (remember, no electricity….) after working from dawn to dusk. Suddenly a runner came to tell us that a canoe was on the river. There was a major emergency. Soon we heard the cry “she be burn bad!” The villagers brought a two year old child who had fallen into a cooking vat filled with callalou—a spinach-like vegetable.
Fortunately I knew how to treat her significant burns. We worked for hours without the things that we normally take for granted. We had to improvise. The (kosher) folding bucket, which I had been using for pumping drinking water, became the burn bath. We had to figure out how to monitor her fluid balance. We had to mix our own pain mixture, and then administer this mixed in jam, so she would take it. We used EVERY bit of gauze and all the topical antibiotic ointments, and also gave her intravenous solution to keep her hydrated. We kept going until we had her stabilized.
We had only the one cloth diaper that was on her. There were no pampers, and no one in this village had more than 2 diapers, with none to spare. So we “manufactured” our own diapers.
The team pediatrician was an Israeli trained doctor. He and I took turns monitoring her all night. In the morning we sent her to a village with a landing strip, which was two hours away by canoe. We commandeered an engine to go on the canoe, to make the trip faster. Then we tried to arrange for a mercy flight to fly her to the capital city of Georgetown, a 1 ½ hour flight away, where she would be admitted to the burn unit. That took two days, using a combination of our satellite phone and the two way radio system they had there.
Through the years, I have seen many instances of the Kindness of Hashem. Children with terribly disfiguring medical challenges received treatment. Children with heart problems were brought to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for care. One young child lived with my family for five months while she had two major heart repairs. We have children named after us —having delivered them by flashlight in the middle of the night under unusual circumstances.[notification type=”alert-info” close=”false” ]
The Chaya Malka Burn Foundation thanks Leya Aronson, R.N. for contributing this article. Leya is the Volunteer Nursing and Project Coordinator for Silverman Guyana Medical Missions, COMET Medical Team, Peter A. Silverman Centre for International Health, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Ontario.[/notification]