Written by: Jonathan Keppler

Mission Impossible

Editor's Note: Last fall, Niagara University's College of Business Administration, in partnership with Catholic Health, launched a health care administration concentration within its MBA program. A unique aspect of the program is the opportunity for students to join volunteers on medical missions to Jamaica each January under the auspices of Catholic Health's parent organization, Catholic Health East's Global Health Ministry. Jonathan Keppler was among the first Niagara students to participate in one of these missions. After an inauspicious start, which included changing flights due to a leak in an airplane's defrosting system, a 14-hour day of travel, and two lost medical suitcases, Keppler spent two weeks in Kingston, serving as the assistant primary care team leader to John Davanzo, senior vice president of regional development for Catholic Health. Here, he shares his story.

Our medical team, which consisted of 15 individuals from all different parts of the United States, was greeted at the airport by John Davano, senior vice president of regional development for Catholic Health, and Sister Grace Yap, who is the director of the Immaculate Conception Convent in Kingston. Now Sister Grace is the primary example why the phrase, "Don't judge a book by its cover," was created. Standing no more than 5 feet tall and opting to keep her age a secret, this Chinese nun has dedicated her life's work to serving others, and essentially acts as the "Godmother" of the entire Jamaican island. She spends her days overseeing various community development projects, negotiating peace agreements with local crime lords, and spending time with her family.

We stayed in the city of Kingston. The areas surrounding this city resembled pictures that you would see in a National Geographic magazine rather than on a postcard. Shanty towns filled with tin-roof houses and abandoned buildings lined the streets as natives went about their daily activities. Walls were covered with graffiti, memorials of fallen friends, and portraits of cultural heroes such as Bob Marley. The air was filled with the distinct aroma of ganja as young men passed the time in an attempt to escape from the demands of life. Communal water taps and pit toilets were common attractions. Children played barefoot with deflated soccer balls enjoying the precious moments of their youth. It was obvious that these people didn't have much in the way of material things, but they did possess a strong sense of community. They were humbled by their present circumstances and thankful for everything they had. As one woman told me, "Are we troubled? Yes. However, trouble is the perfect opportunity for God to do His work."

Every morning, our group would break up into two separate teams to be transported by bus to the various locations we had been assigned by Sister Grace. The first half of our trip was dedicated to servicing the inner-city communities of Whitfield Town, Myrrh Villa, Lyndhurst Park, and Ferry. The second half of the trip required us to travel outside of Kingston to rural Braes River and Santa Cruz, where we saw patients in already established public health clinics. Each new day would lead us to a new place of work. Churches, recreation centers, schools, and even a storage container became home to our team. Basically, if it had a roof, we used it.

The luxuries that we as Americans have the privilege of enjoying on a daily basis were nonexistent in these facilities. Air conditioning was nothing but a distant memory. There were no plush seats, flat screen TVs, or refreshments being offered. The concept of patient privacy came in the form of a bed sheet. It wasn't uncommon for the waiting area, triage, physician, and the pharmacy to be crammed into one single space. As a team leader, I was faced with the task of communicating with the in-country coordinators to ensure that the logistics in the clinical setting were not only efficient, but effective. In addition, I was responsible for controlling patient flow, maintaining a consistent work schedule, and ensuring the accuracy of our medication distribution system.

Overall, our medical mission team was able to provide care to more than 800 patients during our short stay in Jamaica. It was a blessing to be surrounded by a talented team of health care professionals who were energetic, engaged and excited about the work they had set out to do. By transporting our medical suitcases from one site to another, we were able to treat a variety of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, infections and gynecological illnesses. I became frustrated by the fact that a large majority of the patients' diseases were completely preventable, such as malnutrition, hookworms and parasites. By simply increasing the accessibility to basic resources and education, these conditions could be drastically reduced. However, this concept is obviously easier said than done. Important supplies such as eye glasses, walking canes, braces, and supports were also distributed accordingly. One of my favorite memories of the trip was when we handed out stickers and toothbrushes to the children as gifts. I swear by the smiles on their faces you would have thought we had just given them a million dollars.

My time in Jamaica was a life-changing experience, and, although the task of solving the world's problems may seem overwhelming and even impossible at times, I think it's important for us not to remain complacent on the issue. As stated in Luke's Gospel chapter 12 verse 48, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required." The Niagara University community can be a light to the world if we choose to accept this challenge.