Commentary: An Air Force Reserve doctor describes an overseas medical mission he took part in as a civilian

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey Healy
  • 624th Aeromedical Staging Squadron

We're going to operate here?


That was my first question when I looked into the operating room in the hospital at Bacolod, Philippines. I was a highly trained plastic surgeon used to working with the best equipment in state-of-the-art facilities. How did they expect me to perform surgery in this hospital, in this operating room?


The room had two beds, the anesthesia machines were outdated, the monitoring equipment was non-existent, and there was a window air-conditioner with gaps at the edges allowing insects in from outside. The experienced members of the team assured me everything would be fine.


I was skeptical as we started to unpack the boxes of supplies and equipment we had brought from the U.S.  I was wondering if I had made a big mistake by volunteering for this mission.


After we spent several hours setting up the operating rooms, it was time to meet and examine the patients who were scheduled for surgery the next day. As I rounded the corner to walk to the pre-op area, I saw a crowd of people lining the hallway. They were young and old, boys, girls, adults, and senior citizens, all with their family members. Their eyes were hopeful as they watched the doctors walking down the hallway. I started to think that maybe this would turn out to be a good decision.


One by one I met the patients and listened to them or their parents explain their situation through the translators. A beautiful little girl with a cleft lip smiled as her parents told of their hopes that she would be able to have a normal life. A 26-year-old man with a wide bilateral cleft lip and palate had difficulty looking anybody in the eye. His mother explained that he had never attended school, didn't have any friends and only left the house to work his manual labor job in the sugar cane fields. A nine-year-old boy had been abandoned by his parents when an infant and raised in an orphanage. He had a cleft palate which affected his speech and made it difficult for him to eat and drink. As I scheduled the surgical procedures for these patients, I knew this was going to be a great experience.


For the next week, we operated every day from early in the morning until late at night. The team was able to adapt to the austere conditions and make do with the limited equipment and supplies.  At the beginning and end of each day, the team would make rounds on the patients. The hospital rooms were lined with 20 cots and the family members would sleep on the floor next to their loved ones and provide basic care for them. The smiles on the faces of the patients and the expressions of gratitude gave us the energy to continue operating even when we were exhausted.


At the end of the week our team had performed over 100 major surgical procedures, over 250 minor surgical procedures and over 500 dental procedures. The team of doctors, dentists, nurses, technicians, students and laypeople had bonded quickly and developed a sense of camaraderie that will last a lifetime. I have gained a deeper appreciation for many of the things we take for granted here in the U.S. I find myself complaining less when something in the operating room isn't working exactly the way it should. We truly are fortunate. This mission definitely put things in perspective.


As we were sitting in the departure area at the airport in Bacolod, the nine year old orphan and his caregiver were there waiting for their flight home to another island. He shyly approached us with a smile on his face. His caregiver explained that he wanted to give us a thank you gift by singing us a song. There weren't many dry eyes in the group as he sang. I decided then that I would definitely return for another mission next year.




Aloha Medical Mission is a volunteer organization based in Honolulu, Hawaii that provides free medical care to people in developing countries. Dr. Healy has participated in missions to the Philippines, India, China and Vietnam.


Other 624th ASTS members who have volunteered with Aloha Medical Mission are Lt. Col. Fredrick Yost, chief of aerospace medicine and Maj. Richard Yenke, a health administrator. If you are interested in volunteering visit


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