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Gainesville medical community rallies for annual mission trip
Dr. Jack Griffeth with Northeast Georgia Health System radiation oncology talks to a resident of San Juan De La Manguana in the Dominican Republic. Griffeth was one of more than 50 people who took a medical mission trip in January with First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville.

A pile of suitcases toted by 30 medical professionals and 21 other volunteers lay in the pebbly streets of San Juan de la Maguana, in the western region of the Dominican Republic.

Each suitcase was filled to the brim with medical supplies, brought by doctors and nurses from Gainesville, who were there to offer their medical expertise.

“Each person carries a 50-pound suitcase — at least one — full of only the equipment that will be used down there,” said Barbara Griffeth, one of 51 people who traveled to the Caribbean country from Jan. 9-16 to provide health care for its poorer residents. “Participants carry everything they’re going to use for the trip personally in a carry-on backpack.”

Registered Nurse Barbara Ebrite said everyone knows to bring “everything they might need.” These supplies could include anything from surgical and dental tools to clean linens. One year, she said, they brought an anesthesia machine.

The medical supplies help replenish dwindling stores at a clinic in San Juan de la Maguana. Northeast Georgia Medical Center donates the supplies as well as communicates with the church, volunteers and medical professionals who offer their expertise to make the trip a success. The medical center, church and all of the volunteers see the big picture.

“We’re caring for those who really cannot afford to pay for their medical care,” said Dr. Pierpont “Pepper” Brown, a surgeon at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, who ventured to the Dominican Republic this year.

The annual mission trip is organized by the city’s large medical community and First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville.

“It is predominantly a medical mission trip,” said Griffeth, whose husband Jack is a radiation oncologist. “It’s a big, wide community group that goes, and even some people from other cities and states.”

She said nurses, general surgeons, family practitioners, emergency room doctors, anesthesiologists, scrub technicians and others participated in the early January trip. The group spent the week working out of a little concrete-block building, which serves as the village clinic.

“It’s structured with surgeries and village wellness visits, you could call them, to go out into the communities,” Griffeth said.

The clinic had two surgery rooms and a few private patient rooms. Surgeries happened in the clinic each day while a team visited schools and homes in the surrounding village.

Ebrite, who works in a recovery room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, has been on the annual trip since 2007.

“We work in a clinic setting that has two operating rooms,” Ebrite said. “The clinic is run by Dominicans through the support of Solid Rock (International), but they don’t have Dominican doctors (who) are surgeons. So when we go, we’re taking surgeons from the U.S. and anesthesia personnel and nurses. So, we can do surgery while we’re there.”

Ebrite and Brown said the surgeries performed depend on the needs of the people in San Juan de la Maguana. They always find children with “nasty tonsils and adenoids,” Ebrite said, so ear, nose and throat specialists are regulars on the trip.

Brown said he mainly treated hernias, and performed multiple pediatric circumcisions.

“In the past, we’ve also done thyroid surgery and gallbladder surgery,” he said.

But the medical accommodations are not ideal. Griffeth said while San Juan de la Maguana is a nice community, the clinic is in a more impoverished area.

The missionaries and visiting medical professionals stayed in a guest house behind the clinic.  Ebrite said clean, filtered water was available on the clinic complex. The home, however, had no hot water or toilet paper.

Griffeth explained the clinic is sponsored by Solid Rock International, which houses the visitors each January. But the clinic’s mission is to provide health care to the poor in the area. She called the trip “mission-light,” because everyone was fed, comfortable and had a bed and access to a toilet.

“But they’re doing American surgeries in Third-World conditions,” she said. “You never know when the power might go out, or when you might not have a respirator and have to instead breathe for the patient with a bag.”

One year, she said, a surgeon was performing a hysterectomy when the power went out. He had no light and no suction.

“You’re just very thankful in that moment that these doctors have the skills they do,” she said. “Everything was fine.”

This year, though, the medical procedures were uneventful.

“Some years there are events when someone’s life has definitely been saved, and other years it’s more business as usual,” Griffeth said. “But lives sure change, because they’re getting all the operations they wouldn’t get otherwise.”

Griffeth said one of the most impressive things to her about the trip is the way the entire medical community in Gainesville looks forward to it.

“It’s one of those trips that people know is minimally about them,” she said. “It’s a lot about the Dominicans of course. And yet, they come home with their socks blessed off, loving having been there.”

Brown and Ebrite agreed.

“God gave me a talent to care for people,” Ebrite said. “The fact that I can go there and do what I already know how to do — I can go there, do what I do and show his love that way. It feels good.”