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A medical mission

Dr. Joseph Fammartino, an Albuquerque ophthalmologist, examines a patient’s eyes as part of his work with Medical Ministries International on a recent mission to Colombia. He has been volunteering for almost 20 years. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Fammartino)
Dr. Joseph Fammartino, an Albuquerque ophthalmologist, examines a patient’s eyes as part of his work with Medical Ministries International on a recent mission to Colombia. He has been volunteering for almost 20 years. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Fammartino)
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Volunteers bring aid to foreign countries

Dr. Joseph Fammartino, an Albuquerque ophthalmologist, has turned his zeal for helping others into a worldwide adventure through Medical Ministry International, restoring sight to hundreds of South Americans, so they can live more fulfilling lives.

Nenna Arnold, an Albuquerque nurse who recently relocated to Denver, has flown to Africa and Central America for Doctors Without Borders, combining her concern for others with her love of travel.

Even those who aren’t medical professionals can volunteer to improve global health. Both Fammartino and Arnold say their organizations, as well as dozens of non-governmental organizations around the world, need dedicated, skilled volunteers.

“Non-medical folks such as logisticians, financial coordinators and field coordinators make up about 30 percent of the Americans that we send to the field each year,” says spokesman Tim Shenk of Doctors Without Borders.

“We always need helpers,” says Fammartino, a retinal specialist and clinical medical director for the eye department at ABQ Health Partners. He says in the almost 20 years he has been volunteering on medical missions, people from all professions join the effort. “Anyone who wants to come, we’ll assign them a job. We’ve had school teachers and retired business people. My wife volunteers and she’s not a medical professional; she’s a classical pianist. It’s a blessing that she wants to do this with me.”

Restoring sight

Volunteering “is a privilege. I’m very attached to giving some of our time to do this,” says Dr. Joseph Fammartino. He examines a patient’s eyes during a recent mission to Colombia. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Fammartino)

Volunteering “is a privilege. I’m very attached to giving some of our time to do this,” says Dr. Joseph Fammartino. He examines a patient’s eyes during a recent mission to Colombia. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Fammartino)

This past January, Fammartino, his wife and the rest of his Eye Brigade crew went to remote Leticia, Colombia, to set up an eye clinic where they performed surgeries, checked eyes and dispensed glasses. The clinic was set up in a local school, with various classrooms assigned for different functions.

“We saw 700 people a day,” he recalls. “We dispensed 10,000 pairs of glasses.”

Many of the surgeries he and his colleagues performed were to repair traumatic eye injuries, to realign crossed eyes and to remove cataracts. He restored vision for one woman who was the sole support of her family and for another woman who had never seen her grandchildren.

For people in remote villages, just getting reading glasses means they can sew and cook again, he says.

People line up by the hundreds for the clinic after volunteers with megaphones broadcast the arrival of the Eye Brigade in surrounding villages. Many people arrived by boat, led by a neighbor or a loved one into the clinic and then left being able to find their own way home, he says.

Two women, both with cataracts, helped each other to the clinic, but even though they both needed surgery, one told him she would wait for another year until he came again, because she needed to help her friend. They both couldn’t be recovering at the same time.

Giving back

“This is a privilege. I’m very attached to giving some of our time to do this. We stay where the patients are. We eat their food. We are immersed in their culture,” Fammartino says. He says he feels fortunate that he discovered Medical Ministries International because “they are very efficient and well-organized.”

The group organizes eye and medical projects, run by volunteers, around the globe, he says. Along with clinics like Fammartino’s, which last a few weeks, the organization also has permanent clinics that are run by recent graduates from medical school: “We don’t take money from governments.”

Nurse Nenna Arnold has flown around the world with Doctors Without Borders. She wanted to “combine my passions of nursing and traveling.” (Courtesy of Nenna Arnold)

Nurse Nenna Arnold has flown around the world with Doctors Without Borders. She wanted to “combine my passions of nursing and traveling.” (Courtesy of Nenna Arnold)

Volunteers pay airfare and a project fee to cover their expenses while on assignment, he says. Visit my.mmint.org for more details.

Arnold, 40, was finishing her Spanish degree at the University of New Mexico about five years ago when she applied to work with Doctors Without Borders, doctorswithoutborders.org. She worked as a nurse in Albuquerque but was looking to “combine my passions of nursing and traveling. Somewhere I could explore my love of foreign language and culture.”

She chose Doctors Without Borders because she resonated with their ideals and philosophy. The organization does not have religious affiliations. It maintains independence from donors and remains neutral in countries in conflict. However, the organization will report corruption or other crimes if discovered, she says.

“It’s one of the most responsible NGOs (non-governmental organizations) I know about. I didn’t apply anywhere else,” she says. Along with a team of medical professionals, she also worked closely with the administrative staff in each of her assignments, she says. “We have a team of people to make everything work.”

She was a community outreach nurse as part of a HIV project in her first assignment in Mozambique. She worked with community residents to encourage testing and treatment, despite the cultural stigma of the disease.

Her next assignment was in Ethiopia, where she also did community outreach during a cholera outbreak.

Taking precautions

She says she doesn’t really worry about her health while she’s abroad. Her inoculations are specific for the infectious diseases in the country where she’s working. She drinks filtered water. She maintains the highest standards of hygiene that she can. “I’ve been sick my share of times, but we take precautions.”

An outbreak of fever in West Africa called her back to the field before she could come back to Albuquerque for a break. Assignments in Ethiopia and then Honduras followed.

“They’ve all been amazing experiences,” she says. “I’ve made close relationships with my patients and my co-workers.”

She would come back to Albuquerque and work in between assignments and she likes to travel. “I always travel before and after an assignment. It’s always an adjustment coming home and going to the field,” she says.

Doctors Without Borders requires a commitment for the first assignment of about a year, she says. The organization pays a stipend and covers travel and housing in the field.

This spring she accepted a position as an infectious disease nurse at the University of Colorado Hospital, so she could catch up with her family and friends for a while.

The Doctors Without Borders experience has changed her: “I’m am more appreciative of everything. Even when I’m gone, if it’s 125 degrees and I have a fan to blow the air around, I’m so grateful to have that fan.

“I’ve learned not to get riled up about things that don’t matter. If your plane is delayed four hours, it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. When you travel like this, you have to learn to roll with the punches. There’s always some glitch. I’ve worked with people from all over the world. There are always language barriers, but I thrive in that environment.”

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