May 22, 2018

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How Mission Work Strengthened My Practice: Dr. Unger’s Reflection on His Mission Trips to Haiti

“Medicine is a calling and a privilege, mission work is a reminder of that. It helps me remember why I do what I do every day.”  –Dr. Unger

For ACMC Health urologist, Dr. Kevin Unger, mission work has been an integral part of his medical career for the past seven years. In 2017, he completed his fifth mission trip to Haiti where he has provided medical care to hundreds of people.

In addition to helping people in one of the world’s poorest countries, Dr. Unger feels his mission trips have given him something invaluable: context. “It truly put into terms for me what is real and what’s not,” Dr. Unger explained. “Even on my worst days, what I’ve experienced reminds me to be thankful for what I have and what I can provide for my patients.”

This context is what Dr. Unger believes has helped him avoid “burning out”, a common trend among physicians in the medical field. “I think mission work is protective against burnout,” Dr. Unger said. “Although the trips are exhausting, I’m always energized when I return to my practice. It makes me excited to get back into surgery and I can draw on that energy for months.”

Developing a Desire for Mission Work

Dr. Unger’s mission work began in 2010 when he traveled to Haiti for the first time with a group of local physicians. Just one week before their planned arrival in Haiti, the island was hit by a devastating earthquake which killed more than 100,000 people.

Although the group was working at a compound in Limbe which was north of the earthquake’s epicenter, several victims traveled the distance to receive care. “People were seeking whatever care they could find so we did quite a bit of triaging during that trip,” Dr. Unger remembered. This first trip was an eye-opening experience for Dr. Unger. “I actually kissed the ground when we landed back in the United States,” he laughingly recalled. “The country is very poor and it was chaotic but I knew mission work was something I wanted to continue doing.”

Caring for the Poorest of the Poor

Seven years later, with his fifth mission trip complete, Dr. Unger and his team have found their home away from home in the Haitian medical compound. During each medical trip, patients come from near and far to be seen for conditions that often cannot be treated by their local Haitian doctors. “When we arrive, there will be lines of patients waiting outside the clinic,” Dr. Unger said. “Each patient is prescreened and we develop a plan of action and get to work.”

While in Haiti, Dr. Unger and his team work in a compound which was created by an American pediatrician to help serve the country’s needs. “The facility itself is pretty rudimentary. We have two operating rooms and a hospital that holds four to five people per room,” Dr. Unger explained. “Our supplies and equipment are limited and there is always something you don’t have. I am lucky to have a group of MacGyvers on our team who can make do when necessary. It’s such an enriching experience.”

With the poor health conditions in Haiti, Dr. Unger says they don’t often see patients over the age of 55. They also rarely see patients who struggle with obesity as you commonly do in the United States. However, they are seeing many patients battling complications from diabetes and hypertension. “Poverty is very prevalent across Haiti,” he explained. “These conditions, which are treatable in the U.S., become very serious because most people can’t afford the medication.”

The patients who visit the medical compound are typically in need of surgical care for medical conditions. These patients, according to Dr. Unger, are very grateful for the care that the mission team provides for their community. “They come dressed very well and bring their whole family with them because they don’t know what to expect.” Dr. Unger said. “After returning to Haiti for several years, they now know who we are and what we can provide.”

Life-Changing Experiences

Unger in HaitiAlthough Dr. Unger is a urologist, during his mission work he often helps his fellow doctors outside of his specialty. On one of his first trips, Dr. Unger found himself assisting in an emergency birth that was nothing short of a miracle. An expectant mother had arrived at the compound, struggling with complications from eclampsia. After seizing for 12 hours, the doctors decided to deliver her 28-week-old baby to save both the mother and baby’s life.

After the team members delivered the lifeless baby via c-section, Dr. Unger and Dr. Dave Larson, an Emergency Room doctor from Ridgeview Medical Center, began working to revive the infant using dextrose (a simple sugar) infused via the umbilical artery. After reviving the baby, the pair decided the baby would need additional dextrose to have any chance of survival.

However, they didn’t have the tools and equipment needed to give an intravenous infusion. Quick thinking and creativity allowed them to administer the dextrose every six hours by placing a small Foley catheter into the baby’s esophagus.  After much care and observation, both mother and baby survived.

This was the very moment that Dr. Unger knew he was meant to do mission work. “That was when I realized that what we were doing was special,” he said. “You will never see scenarios like that in the U.S. Not only does mission work make clinical skills broader but it forces you to look at things differently. That is what I love.”

The Value of Medical Mission Work

With five mission trips behind him, Dr. Unger looks forward to returning to Haiti and has considered visiting other countries as well. “God-willing that my health is there and I am able to do the work, I plan to continue doing medical missions,” he explained.

Dr. Unger is also urging others to consider participating in a medical mission trip. He believes that as an organization, mission work could be a long-term solution to physician burnout. Dr. Unger encourages medical professionals to look at mission work early in their career, helping them gain perspective through a full-realm of patient care. “Don’t wait too long,” Dr. Unger said. “Medical professionals sacrifice a lot to get through school but sacrifice is a part of medicine. I feel it’s so important for young doctors to get involved early.”

As for Dr. Unger and his team of MacGyver doctors, they can’t wait to see what’s next in their mission to bring medical care to those in need.