Some students spend their summers vacationing. Some spend their summers interning.
Blair Benton chose to spend her summer serving.
Benton, now a senior biology/pre-med student at Newman, knew she wanted to go on a surgical medical mission trip over the summer of 2014. She opted to search for one via Google, and after some research came across the International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF), which was created to perform cardiac surgeries on children in need of competent medical care who wouldn’t normally have access to it. ICHF has traveled all over the world performing surgeries, as well as training and assisting local pediatric cardiac surgery programs to reach their full potential.
“It was the one that actually allowed students to go,” Benton said. “There was an application and you had to get some letters of recommendation. So I got an email that said, ‘Hey, you’re going on this mission. Buy your plane ticket.’ You didn’t have a lot of options. I was just really happy to have the opportunity to go.”
The mission took Benton to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Benton said she researched the area to prepare for the journey, but found that no amount of research could have fully prepared her for the transformative experience.
“I have a knack of putting myself into situations that I’m not entirely prepared for,” Benton said. “My adventure was no exception. For a sophomore in college, I felt that my reading and Internet surfing provided sufficient information to comprehend the discussions and cases I would be involved with. After all, my role as a student was to ask questions, learn, and be amazed by what was happening around me. However, no amount of Googling or advice from physicians I had shadowed stateside could prepare me for the moment the first patient walked into the echocardiography (echo) lab on the first Sunday morning.”
Benton said she found herself connecting with those serving with the mission and those individuals who were being served. However, she was most influenced by a 13-year-old soccer-playing boy named Joel, who was diagnosed with a potentially fatal case of perimembranous ventricular septal defect. Benton said she followed Joel from his surgery through his recovery process – an experience that changed her entire outlook.
“I had come to Ecuador with rose-colored glasses,” Benton said. “Every kid could be saved. Every outcome was good, and nowhere in my mind was I prepared for kids to die. During the very first consult of the very first day, my rose-colored glasses were ripped off and replaced with a profound respect for everyone on our team. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that without them, these kids would not live another 10 years, if that.”
Benton was allowed to watch the delicate surgery on the boy’s heart.
“The experience of seeing a human heart, and even being able to touch it … was extremely humbling,” she said.
She added that going through Joel’s recovery process helped her solidify her love for the medical field and find a new love with working in a mission. She said each time she interacted with the kids or their families she was reminded that it was something she wanted to do the rest of her life.
“Joel continued to improve with each day post-op,” she said. “Eventually, he was making treks around the ICU and asking when he could play soccer again. After each post-op echo his face would light up as we told him his heart looked better or good.”
Benton said she found enjoyment in all aspects of her experience. She enjoyed the little things such as greeting patients in the morning, interacting with patients and their families, and witnessing the professionals’ passions for the mission efforts and helping as many people in the best possible ways they could.
“The patients we operated on had their own personalities, stories, and obstacles to overcome, but the one thing they all share was the impact they have had on my life,” she said. “Every day I learned a new lesson from them: whether it was the thrill of bubbles or Spiderman, or the joys of good old crayons and a coloring book. Each one had their own way of brightening the room. Additionally, I have never in my life worked so diligently or celebrated a smile so highly. I’m usually terrible with goodbyes, but each kid leaving our ward signified a difference being made, and the chance at a better future. In my opinion there is no greater way to say goodbye.”
– Kati Bush ’16