Saturday, January 21, 2012

On a Mission

I was recently blessed to be part of a medical mission trip to Mexico.  It was an incredible adventure on many levels... personal, professional, and spiritual.  It was an intense four day excursion with an amazing group of people to do what we could with what we had to bring surgical services to the people of Chiapas (and nearby), Mexico.

Most of our team. Vernon is first lower right.
Our group consisted of three teams of eye surgeons and staff who performed a variety of life changing procedures on children and adults, some of whom traveled as far as 12 hours by bus for the chance to be treated.   Clinica Pena de Horeb (Rock of Horeb Clinic) is a humble facility in Cintalapa, Mexico, where the feeling of a power greater than our own is palpable.  I was nearly moved to tears daily by the incredible work we were able to do with minimal resources and by the sacrifice and appreciation of the people who allow this place to exist and those who came and sat for hours, sometimes a full 24, in the hopes of being seen and treated.  Unfortunately, with each mission campaign there are more patients who arrive than can be treated.  That fact made taking a break and getting a full night of sleep not seem quite so important.  It was a volunteer experience that moved me more than any other and one that I am already looking forward to repeating.

Potential patients waiting in the courtyard
The clinic

The clinic was started in 1991 by Vernon and Grace Odom (a retired couple from Texas) with the help of the non-profit group Good News Friends, Inc. (which they also founded).  I had the pleasure of meeting Vernon on this trip.  He is a quiet and kind Octogenarian who continues to drive from his home in Texas to the clinic in southern Mexico each year.  The clinic has become  known throughout southern Mexico as "the eye clinic" as many medical teams from the U.S. come and do hundreds of eye surgeries each year.

My role on this trip was to provide anesthesia services to some of the children and adults who came for surgery.  Sharing the details of our limited equipment and resources consistently elicits a "wow" and "oh my gosh" from every person with whom I share my story.  We had to think "outside the box" and summon the ingenuity that made McGyver famous.  In comparison, it's clear that we often accomplish so little with so much in the U.S.  The amount of waste in our country in so many facets of our lives is mind boggling.  Especially when you see what you can accomplish with so little at your disposal and to see what so many in this world live without.  I don't really have the words to describe the experience and the impact this trip had on me.  You have to see it for yourself to really understand, and I highly encourage you all to do so.
My anesthesia equipment:  there is no anesthesia machine

Dr. Mark Lucarelli, Jenny Barett RN, and me

One of my intentions for this blog was to show, through my own life adventures, how food connects us with the world.  The clinic has recently added a beautiful kitchen on to their facility in order to feed the volunteers who come there to work.  It is their way of saying "thank you". And it is the best thanks I could ever hope for.  Though we had just a short time to break for meals during our 18 hour days, the love from the kitchen couldn't be denied.  Three lovely women cooked simple homemade southern Mexican cuisine for us every day.  Their work days were nearly as long as ours and they always had smiles for us when it was meal time.

Our "cocineras" hand shredding banana bark for tamale ties
Fresh corn tortillas, salsa verde, fresh papaya, and guava were served with nearly every meal.  Two outdoor wood fired adobe ovens were used on the first day to cook up chickens (no doubt from the grounds) which would be used as our primary source of protein during our stay.  Our meals consisted of scrambled eggs with salsa, empanadas, chiles rellenos, banana leaf tamales, and chicken & black bean tostadas...all made by hand.  (They even hand shredded the dried banana tree bark that was used to tie the tamales!)
Tostada & Banana leaf tamale

Eggs, potatoes, plantains, fruit

Chiles Rellenos, rice, flan
Barbacoa de Pollo

My favorite dish was served at our first lunch.  It was Barbacoa de Pollo and it was delicious!!  I was able to get a list of ingredients from one of our cocineras and subsequently found a similar recipe  online by one of my favorite chefs of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless.  Essentially it was chicken legs and thighs stewed for hours in the adobe oven with red wine, red wine vinegar, guajillo and cascabel chilies, dried avocado leaves, garlic, onion, prunes, green olives, cinnamon, and cloves.  I don't see some of these items on chef Bayless's recipe but they really added some fun to the plate and I will add them when I try making this myself.  The meat melted off the bones and the sauce was rich and smoky with a hint of spicy heat.  

When the ladies told me about using Avocado leaves I had to clarify that that is really what they meant.  We were speaking in Spanish after all and perhaps I misunderstood.  As a lover of avocado however, I know full well that "aguacate" is how you say "avocado" in Spanish.  I saw the leaves sitting on the counter and assumed they were some kind of large bay leaf, as that's what they looked like.  I had never heard of cooking with avocado leaves before.  I did a little calling around and found that they can be purchased at some of our local ethnic grocery stores (Yue Wah being one for adventure in itself!) here in Madison.  

Not only was the food a fun way to connect to the culture in which we found ourselves, but also to the people who live there and to each other.  Our short breaks for meals was the one time during the day when we volunteers could gather in one place to get to know one another, laugh, commiserate, relax, regroup, and reinvigorate.  It allowed us a few short minutes of fresh air as we had to walk outside briefly to get from the operating rooms to the dining room.  It was also a stark reminder of what we were doing and how needed we were.  Our walk to the dining room lead us past the covered courtyard where all of the hopeful potential patients waited (for hours and sometimes days) with empty bellies and dry mouths.  It was a loud and firm reminder to be grateful yet it came in the simplest of ways...a mere few steps taken from one door to another.  Food is so much more than just fuel for our bodies.  It is a bridge that connects us on so many levels to the world around us.

My four short days on this trip were filled with constant simple yet firm reminders to be grateful.  To be grateful that I was born in a country of such abundance, to a family who could offer me so much potential, and who raised me to make the most of that potential. With very few exceptions, we all work hard for what we have, yet we are also so very lucky to have what we have and to be able to work hard for it.  It's so easy to get lost in the constant bombardment of excess in our culture.  I intend to continue to take this trip and take part in other efforts locally to help me maintain my perspective on what is truly important in life.  I can't encourage you enough to find an opportunity to reach out and help someone in need.  It doesn't have to be in another country.  It can be as simple as crossing your street.  You may be blessed in ways you never imagined.
How cute is he?!
New friends with very tired eyes!

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that many of the ingredients necessary for the Barbacoa can be found at the winter farmer's market!  Onions, garlic, chicken, and even tortillas! The spices and dried chiles are available at Penzey's and other ingredients can be found at our local ethnic grocery stores.  Food is a bridge between people...don't be intimidated by our ethnic grocery stores, they are exciting places to explore and if you are kind and patient you will likely be treated the same in return.


  1. What a beautiful blog, Alyssa! Thanks for sharing- loved your pics, especially the ones of food...

  2. Thanks for the kind comment Heidi!