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On a medical mission

KU employees volunteer to help bring care to poor regions of world



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David McKinney shot this photo of a Romanian boy laughing with Medical Missions Foundation volunteers during his trip to the country.

They may not have medical training, but a pair of KU staffers recently helped doctors heal burns, perform reconstructive surgeries for cleft lips and palates and skin grafts. And they did it all without being able to speak the native language.

David McKinney, a graphic designer with the Office of University Relations, and Jen Humphrey, senior editor with the KU Endowment Association, recently traveled to Romania and Panama, respectively, to volunteer with Medical Missions Foundation. The foundation sends American doctors, nurses, volunteers and supplies to help provide medical care for poor and indigent people in countries across the world.

Medical missions
For more information on Medical Missions Foundation, visit
McKinney spent 10 days volunteering as a photographer in Botosani and Dorohoi, Romania, in September, and Humphrey served as a writer for a trip to David, Panama, last month. Both were along to help document the work of Medical Missions Foundation of Leawood and contribute to the cultural exchange.

McKinney photographed doctors performing surgeries and Romanians in their daily lives. Humphrey sat in on surgeries as well and wrote a daily blog about the volunteers' experiences. She will also help write the foundation's annual report.

Both interacted with the local population as well as the individuals receiving care.

McKinney shot this photo of a Romanian father overcome with joy after his child had surgery to repair a cleft lip and palate.

"You get to see it from all perspectives," Humphrey said. "Pre-op, post-op and in the community. It gives you a more realistic picture of the surgeries and the culture in which you're working."

The trip was not a leisurely vacation. The teams worked 12 plus-hour days and performed as many as 55 surgeries per day. In both locations, people would travel from across the country to receive care.

"Pretty much anyone with a medical problem they wanted looked at by the doctors was given an interview," McKinney said.

Not only did the volunteers get to see surgery first hand, many of the methods used would never be performed in the United States. Often innovation was born of necessity. Humphrey recalled a skin graft surgery in which doctors did not have surgical foam they would normally use to help the skin adapt to its new place on the body. They instead used sanitized egg crate foam to do the job.

Education was as important a part of the trip as the medical care. The U.S. doctors helped train local doctors in advanced medical techniques and use of modern equipment.

In both locations, the teams left laparoscopic surgery equipment worth nearly $100,000 and provided training for the doctors to use it.

"It's really an exchange of information," Humphrey said. "Our doctors can see how other doctors might have to do it."

David McKinney

In Romania, McKinney and his team visited schools and orphanages and provided burn prevention education. Burns are a common problem in Romania, because families often cook with wood stoves in small, enclosed houses. Children tend to fall in cook fires, and bedding regularly catches fire when it gets to close to a stove.

Children were the primary recipients of the care provided by Medical Missions Foundation. Not only did they receive surgeries and other care, but volunteers provided them with art supplies and toys to help ease their anxiety before seeing a doctor. McKinney photographed MMF volunteers handing out toothbrushes and toys in Romanian orphanages, while Humphrey read the Spanish translation of one of her favorite childhood books, "Guess How Much I Love You."

And young people were perhaps the most important contributors. Local students served as translators. English is taught in their schools, and they provided a vital link between cultures.

The volunteers were able to experience local culture. They dined at local restaurants, and Humphrey visited the Panama Canal and see demonstrations of Panamanian folklore dance. The children at schools McKinney visited sang for the volunteers.

Medical Missions Foundation sends U.S. volunteers from across the country to Vietnam, Philippines, Panama, Romania and Guatemala. The foundation, which has no religious affiliation, works closely with the KU Medical Center and other area hospitals on outreach programs.

The volunteers said they were moved by the spirit of the individuals they met.

"One of the most important things I witnessed was the unconditional love these parents gave their kids," McKinney said. "What some may consider disabilities do not stop them from loving them. These people may have lacked material wealth and modern conveniences, but in many ways, they were not poor."