Mary Hilgenkamp could see that a doctor was struggling.
Was the little medical attention she could give to the residents of Pierre Payen, Haiti, really making a difference?
Hilgenkamp, a registered nurse and Arlington resident, offered some encouragement.
“In a nation that has so little, I think you have to live on that ounce of hope that you are making a difference, even if it's just that one patient's life,” said Hilgenkamp, who recently completed her third medical mission trip to the third-world country.
Hilgenkamp and Arlington High School senior Hannah Thompson returned from Haiti on Nov. 18 after a nine-day trip with a Lexington-based Grace 4 Haiti medical team at Victor Brinkley Hospital in Pierre Payen.
Prior to arriving at the hospital, the pair volunteered for four days at God's Children Haiti, an orphanage operated by Annie Hume, a Michigan resident.
The orphanage serves 17 children — most of whom have special needs.
“It was really humbling,” Thompson said. “Despite their situation and what they've been through, they were all so happy.”
Thompson and Hilgenkamp helped one child — a 7-year-old boy named Wesley — with school work after he was kicked out of school. They also took the children to visit the beach.
Hume also arranged for Thompson and Hilgenkamp to go snorkeling before they had to leave for the hospital.
“She said it was the play before the work,” Hilgenkamp said.
On their first day at the hospital, Hilgenkamp, Thompson and the medical team saw 110 patients in the clinic. They also performed four surgeries.
Though she is only a high school student, Thompson had what Hilgenkamp called “the most important” job. Thompson was in charge of the surgery schedule.
“People couldn't get scheduled for surgery if they didn't go through her,” Hilgenkamp said. “You'd hear, 'Hannah! Where's Hannah?'”
Thompson, who plans to study nursing in college, also got to scrub in on a surgery to remove a breast mass. A doctor from Seattle allowed Thompson to help.
“That was a highlight for sure,” she said.
Hilgenkamp said the team performed 25 to 30 surgeries and saw more than 300 patients.
One woman arrived at the hospital with a very swollen abdomen. At first, Thompson said, they thought she was pregnant. But they soon learned she had a 32-pound fibroid tumor.
“She looked like she was pregnant with triplets,” Hilgenkamp said.
Another woman had a tumor the size of a basketball.
A man, who only a month before had two toes amputated by a Haitian doctor, arrived at the hospital. His foot was ripe with dry gangrene. Bone and tendons were clearly seen. The medical team prepared him for another amputation.
“There's always something different in Haiti,” Hilgenkamp said. “In my three trips, it's never been the same.”
Two babies were born at the hospital while Hilgenkamp and Thompson were there. Hilgenkamp served as the nurse for one of the deliveries.
“I couldn't quit smiling after that day,” she said.
Hilgenkamp said returning to the U.S. is bittersweet.
“I want to go back there,” she said. “They are just the most genuinely kind people and they don't judge you for anything. They are very appreciative. I'd rather surround myself with people like that than the hustle and bustle of reality here in the states. You could have nothing and find happiness. Even the poorest of poor in our states have so much more than the people there.”
For Thompson, the trip was eye-opening.
“I think the one thing that I learned that I should have learned here is that despite all the labels that people have for each other, we're all just people,” she said.