Alan Meinke, M. D., a surgeon at Norwalk Hospital, has completed four volunteer medical missions to third world countries. On Friday he talked to Westport Sunrise Rotary about them.
His “self-sponsored” missions to Haiti, Kenya, New Guinea and India provided surgical services utterly unavailable in the often remote villages he visited.
Meinke’s takeaway was “for all the good we do the people we help, they do more for us.”
His start was a simple request of his wife “Can I skip the family vacation to go to India?” She agreed, he took his teenage son and went, under the aegis of the American College of Surgeons.
Once there he intended “not to do, but to show, so the ball keeps rolling when we leave.”
The lessons he learned were striking. Language sometimes became a barrier, so in one instance, his son Chris, who had come to help outside the O.R., was gowned, gloved and pressed into service. In India, power was so erratic that they took to wearing a miner’s helmets to assure light.
Meinke journeyed to Haiti a year after the earthquake. He showed pictures of rubble piled high at the side of a city street – “pushed aside like we push snow,” and added “the cities looked like war zones, even one year later.”
His hospital, in a compound at the airport, looked like rows of garages. He performed operations ranging from treating people with badly healed wounds to amputations, the result of getting caught in buildings destroyed by the quake, as well as tumors and other problems that simply could went unaddressed.
Meinke said he “saw things as a surgeon you don’t see here, you do things you’d never imagine doing in the U.S.” He talked about doing surgery the way he learned it 30 years ago as a young resident.
In New Guinea he worked in Mount Hagan, a village so isolated it was unknown until the 1930s. The team had to fly in because there are still no roads from Port Moresby.
The village was a “brutal, violent” place. Many elders – people older than about 45 – have memories of cannibalism, which they told him had been practiced during their lifetimes.
“Even five year olds drag machetes, mostly to clear away the brush for getting around.” But the number of people with limbs missing spoke to their use for other purposes.
He talked more than once about “health stresses” as the result of minimal medical care. The Australian government built Mount Hagan’s Nazarene Hospital in 1960. Though it was, Dr. Meinke noted, “one of the most advanced,” day-to-day medical care remains quite minimal.
In contrast, in Kenya, which like New Guinea, is on the equator, he worked in a 100 year old hospital with 80 year old beds and similar hand me downs elsewhere. Patients were cared for in wards where every morning nurses would take them out and clean the small building.
He showed a picture of operating room items “sterilized” – washing and hanging out to dry on fence posts or rocks.
He called himself the “tip of the pyramid,” and praised the support team – from nurses “doing all the hard work,” to drivers, people managing supplies and other medical personnel, all of whom made it possible to successfully treat patients.
Meinke also learned one really personal lesson. After helping in the operating room, his son Chris told him that that experience had made up his mind. He was not going to become the third generation of Meinke M.D.s.
He closed by noting that organizations like Rotary whose work around the world can bring better health to more people through their financial and hands-on support.
Following his talk Dr. Meinke answered questions. One that left an impression on the writer was about the potential impact of a recently discovered anti-biotic resistant strain of tuberculosis found in India. The question was what is the prognosis for such diseases. Meinke said we will find them increasingly prevalent because current anti-biotics are the end of existing science, that we need the break throughs we will get as we learn more about the genome.
Photo by Hal Levy