So You Want to Go on a Medical Mission

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  • The Journal for Nurse Practitioners - JNP 707

    ABSTRACTThis article is intended to provide basic information on medical mis-sion trips: what a medical mission trip is, how to find a medical mis-sion organization, and how to prepare both personally and profes-sionally.

    Keywords: Medical mission trip

    So You Want to Goon a Medical Mission

    Cathy S. Chapman

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  • November/December 2007708 The Journal for Nurse Practitioners - JNP

    My professional life has been arranged each yeararound a medical mission to Honduras. Somepeople think its strange that I would spend somuch money and time to go to a third-world countryfor a few short weeks every year. How can it make a dif-ference to the health of these people? But many morepeople take me aside and want to know what isinvolvedthey too would like to go.What is a medicalmission? What is involved? And why would one want todo this?

    There are many reasons for wanting to do a medicalmission trip: the sense of adventure, a chance to seeanother country up close and personal, a meaningfulvacation.When done in the right spirit, medical missiontrips are much more than a vacation, they truly become alife-changing experience. My colleagues and I go onmission trips with the expectation that we are helpingsomeone less fortunate than ourselves. But what we oftenfind is that we are touched and changed by the experi-ence far more than the people that we are there to help.As Ralph Waldo Emerson said,It is one of the mostbeautiful compensations of this life that no man can sin-cerely try to help another without helping himself.

    Mission trips are usually faith based, but there arenonreligious organizations that sponsor mission trips.Mission trips vary in length, depending on the locationand organization. Most are 1 to 3 weeks in length.If you are thinking about going on a medical mission,you have to do some tough work upfront.The first thingto look at is taking a hard look at yourself.You will bespending 1 to 2 weeks in a foreign country with peoplethat you may not know.The conditions may be primi-tive; the food may be different from that what you areused to.You will probably be working long hours withlimited supplies and equipment. Language and culturebarriers may make your work more difficult. How goodare you at going with the flow? How do you copewhen the unexpected becomes the expected? How doyou feel about cold showers, or worse, no showers? Noelectricity? How well do you do with living in closeproximity with strangers? It is absolutely crucial that youknow what you are getting into and are prepared to

    accept it. If you go and do not like it, it will be thelongest 10 to 14 days of your life! You will be miserableand make those around you miserable as well!

    OK; so you have thought about it and you really wantto do it! The next step is finding a medical mission team.

    Often finding a team is a matter of looking in onesown community. Many mission teams are faith based, solooking within ones faith community or denomination isa good place to start. If you are not affiliated with or notinterested in working with a faith-based team, sometimesdoctors, nurse practitioners, or other care providers fromthe local health care community do medical relief workthat is not faith based. Check with your local hospital forfurther information on these teams. If neither of theseoptions has proven fruitful, check the Internet.There aremany websites for nondenominational faith-based organi-zations as well as nonfaith-based organizations (Table 1).

    Once you find a team or a group in which you areinterested, get to know this group as well as possiblebefore you commit to a trip.Try to spend time withothers who will be on your team to get to know thembetter. Be sure you are clear on expectations; knowwhat you can expect from them and know what theyexpect from you. Know exactly what the costs will beand what the cost covers.Ask specifically about before-trip costs: the cost of immunizations and any clothingand supplies that you will need to purchase before leav-ing. Know what additional costs you are expected topay when you are abroad.The first year I did a medicalmission trip, I had not been forewarned of a $25 perperson exit tax. I had spent all my money the previousday to buy gifts for friends and family and had to bor-row money to pay the exit tax!

    As soon as you commit to going, begin working onobtaining a passport and immunizations, if you do nothave them already.There is substantial cost involved ingetting a passport, and currently there may be a severalmonth delay, particularly if a visa is also required. Contactthe embassy by phone or e-mail of the country you planto visit to learn of visa requirements, time frame for sub-mission, cost.Your organization should be able to tell youwhat immunizations are recommended for where youwill be working.The Centers for Disease Control andPrevention (CDC) website ( is a wealth ofinformation on country-specific immunizations recom-mended, information on diseases specific to areas, and tips

    Photos on previous page courtesy of the author: Peoplewaiting in line to be seen at a clinic; and Brenda Deller,RN, of Richmond, Virginia, giving dosing instructions.

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  • The Journal for Nurse Practitioners - JNP 709

    to staying healthy while abroad.The immunization rec-ommendations may vary within a country (ie, mountainscompared with coast, city compared with country), so itis important to follow the CDC recommendations. Butremember, immunizations and preventative medicationsare not 100% effective in preventing diseases, so it isessential that you follow all recommendations for pre-venting illness.You might also consult the US State

    Department at for any travel restrictions orwarnings about the host country before you leave.

    When you receive your passport, make a copy to leaveat home with a friend or family member, make a copy foryour team leader, and hide a copy somewhere in your suit-case. One year, my passport was stolen from my pocket ona shopping venture in the city. It was my hidden copy ofmy passport that got me through customs and back home.

    Table 1. Websites for Medical Missionary Organizations and Medical Supplies

    Medical Missionary Organizations URLMissionary Ventures International

    Volunteers in Medical Missions

    Partners in Progress

    Christian Medical Missions

    Medical Mission Response

    Samaritans Purse

    Mercy and Truth Medical Missions

    Global Frontier Missions www.globalfrontier

    Mercy Ships

    International Accelerated Missions

    Project Hope

    Medical Missions Foundation

    International Medical Corp

    Doctors Without Borders

    Flying Doctors of America

    Medical International Rapid Response

    Operation Smile

    International Medical Volunteers Association

    Action without Borders

    Refugee Relief International

    Doctors of the World

    Medical, Eye and Dental International Care Organization

    International Medical Volunteers Association

    Medicines and SuppliesMAP International

    Direct Relief International


    Interchurch Medical Assistance

    Project Hope

    This list is intended only as a guide to potential organizations available. It is by no means all inclusive.

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  • November/December 2007710 The Journal for Nurse Practitioners - JNP

    DECIDING WHAT TO TAKENow begins the daunting task of deciding what to take.Even though the airline allows two check-in bags perperson, most organizations allow only one of those bagsfor personal use.The second bag is used to take medi-cines and supplies. So now you need to fit clothes andpersonal items for 10 days into one bag! Three generalrules can be used for deciding what to take: (1) If youneed it, take it. Do not assume you can save space bybuying supplies when you get there. Some of the per-sonal items we take for granted may not be availablethere. If, by chance, we do find that special facial soap orcontact lens solution, it may be horribly expensive. (2) Ifit is valuable or irreplaceable, leave it at home. Unfortu-nately, theft is often commonplace in areas of greatpoverty.The wet shoes you leave on the porch orclothesline to dry may not be there on your return.Clothes washing is often done by hand with lye-basedsoap that can cause streaking and dulling of coloredclothes. (3) Be sensitive to the poverty that will surroundyou. Now is not the time to wear flashy jewelry or cloth-ing. Many of these people are painfully aware of howpoor they are.You do not need to remind them of thisthrough your attire.

    Be sure to carry your personal medications as wellas a small first-aid kit in your carry-on bag.Take yourpersonal medications in a small, pharmacy-labeled bot-tle. If you have any medications with street value suchas narcotics,Ativan, Xanax, etc, it is highly recom-mended that you also carry a letter, preferably in bothlanguages, from your care provider that documents theneed for these drugs.The first-aid kit should consist ofa few adhesive bandages, antibiotic skin creams,antidiarrheal an