My Humanitarian Trip to Colombia

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     Last October, I had the incredible opportunity to go to Colombia on a humanitarian mission for my church. It was amazing! Going on medical humanitarian missions for my church is one of my many life goals and dreams. I went to Colombia as a registered nurse to teach neonatal resuscitation with three doctors from the United States and two doctors from Colombia. My real dream is to be able to do all of this with my husband, Matt. He wants to be a Physician’s Assistant. We want to do lots of humanitarian trips together. He is so supportive of me going on these trips. The hardest part is being away from Matt. I love him so much.

Colombia Political Map

I was in Bogota, Cúcuta and a city close to Riohache called Maicao. Can you find them?

     The Church’s humanitarian program has been incredibly successful around the world and especially in Colombia. The church has been sending medical teams to almost every third world country in the world to help decrease infant mortality rates. Many babies around the world that die could have been saved with minimal resuscitation. The church goes around the world to provide free American Academy of Pediatrics’ Neonatal Resuscitation Program training to doctors and nurses. They also teach a program called “Helping Babies Breathe” to lay midwives around the world. They donate many materials.

     Of all babies that are born, 90% of them have no problems and don’t need any interventions at birth. 10% of babies do need help at birth. 1% of the previous 10 % mentioned need a full resuscitation with full CPR including chest compressions, medications and intubation. The other 9% only need minimal resuscitation with bag and mask ventilation that can easily be performed by even medically untrained people. The whole goal of these trips is to train the local people so that they can go on and perpetuate the program in their own hospitals and communities. Nearly 80,000 birth attendants have been trained so far by the LDS church. They then become the instructors and because they received the free training, they commit to providing trainings to a certain number of people within six months. They then report to the humanitarian director of their country. The impact that this humanitarian program of the church has had on the world is tremendous.

     The money used to pay for these trips and the supplies donated comes from members of our church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every month, each member of the church doesn’t eat for 2 meals. They then donate the money that they would have used to buy the food for those meals and donate it to fast offerings and other funds of the church like the church’s humanitarian fund. The church goes on 1-2 humanitarian trips each week of the year to teach newborn resuscitation to different countries around the world.

     I LOVED Colombia! I have had the opportunity to live in Ecuador and Argentina for extended periods of time. I’ve also been able to visit some countries in Central America but Colombia is really special to me. It’s a very dangerous place for different reasons but my experience was great. The people who I met are just so warm, loving, kind and generous.

     On Saturday, we flew into Bogotá. I think the flight took 10 or 11 hours or so. We stayed in the Embassy Suite Hotel and ate some typical Colombian food for dinner. We ate arepas, which are basic sides to any Colombian meal. It is a bread made from cornmeal, similar to a thick pancake. We also ate tomales which are cooked corn dough filled with meat, chicken and vegetable wrapped in banana leaves. We also ate their amazing fruit like mango, maracuyá, pineapple, papaya, guava, gooseberries and guanábanas. Mmmm, so good. They also had these delicious candies with caramel and guava paste called bocadillos. They just tasted like South America to me. So delicious.

     The next day, we went to church at the oldest LDS church in Bogotá. I love going to church in South America! It is my favorite. I love the members of the church there. They are just so loving and accepting. They have so much faith. It was weird to me that they treated us like we were very important. They honored us for coming to their country for this humanitarian mission. That Sunday was fast and testimony meeting and it was great. I love how there was not a quiet time in the whole meeting. Every just rushed up to the pulpit, so eager to share their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Their testimonies are very pure. They don’t do travel logs or random off topic stories. They just briefly testify of pure truth. I felt the Holy Ghost a lot in that meeting.

     After church, we flew to a city named Cúcuta (pronounced Coo-Coo-Tah). It’s on the border of Colombia and Venezuela. It’s a big city. They have a medical center that gives care to about 4 million people and it only has one oxygen tank. They also only had 1 bilirubin light for all of those babies. While we were there, the church donated more bilirubin lights to that hospital. The stake presidency met us at the airport and government vehicles took us to our hotel. The government was very supportive of our trip and they provided vehicles for us the entire time we were in Colombia.The Stake Presidency is great there. I love them. What amazing men. They just serve so cheerfully and faithfully. We met up with the church’s humanitarian director of Colombia, Carlos Fernandez and the public relations director for Colombia, Virginia. We also met Julio Ramirez and Gloria Martinez. They are neonatologists from Popayan in Southern Colombia. They aren’t members of the LDS church but they are amazing. The church went to their city and did the training there a few years earlier. Since then, they have gone on to train over 1,200 other healthcare providers in NRP and they are only 2 of the thousands of people who have been trained by the church to become NRP instructors. Think of the impact that this training has had on all of the people of Colombia. I LOVE Julio and Gloria. We also met up with Mario and Betsy Rojas. They are from Bogotá. We became very close friends with everyone. They are hilarious.

Left to Right – Carlos Fernandez, Dr. Gloria Martinez, Dr. Julio Ramirez, Dr. Nordell Brown, Betsy and Mario Rojas, Dr. Douglas Hacking, me, Dr. Eric Welling, Kathy Welling

     We went to the church to set up because in this city we would be using the church to teach the Neonatal Resuscitation Program for the next two days. There were tons of members of our church there to help us set up. I was really impressed that they were all so willing to help us for hours. They don’t live close by either. Many have to take buses to get to the church. After setting up at the church, we went to dinner at an Argentine restaurant. I got the biggest stake that I had ever seen. It did not look that big in the picture. We had a great time.

     On Monday, we met at the church early to get ready to teach the doctors and nurses that were coming from many places near Cúcuta. Some of them even took an eight-hour bus ride to get to the training. We were only expecting 50 people but 62 people came! They were so grateful for this opportunity to learn neonatal resuscitation. Although they have medical training, many of them did not even know how to give bag and mask ventilations. Many of the doctors were doing dangerous and harmful things during resuscitations like bolusing calcium and glucose during a newborn resuscitation. That is really contraindicated and can produce a very bad outcome for the baby. They do the very best that they can but many things that we taught them were completely different from what they had been doing. Many of their babies were dying or had severe complications.

     We taught nine lessons and had practices in between the different lessons. I taught lesson #2 on the initial steps of neonatal resuscitation. It was about 35 minutes and I taught the whole thing in Spanish. I did well. The difficult part for me was reviewing the other lessons in the practices. I was a little frustrated because I had no idea at all that I was supposed to lead the practice sessions as well. I would have prepared much better for that. I hardly got any information at all before the trip so that was the only difficult part. I caught on fast and was able to teach just fine. The doctors and nurses that I taught were very respectful to me. It was fun.

Eric Welling teaching how to intubate a baby.

My practice group doing a newborn resuscitation simulation. They are all doctors and were such sweet people.

New doctors in Cúcuta that were in my practice group. They were very fun.

My group getting ready for their Megacode pass-off.

More simulations

Julio, Gloria and me

     In Cúcuta, we were able to see the house and church of Simon Bolivar. He is the liberator of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador from the Spanish. He’s very famous there. An interesting thing about Cúcuta are that they sell gasoline in milk jugs and 5 gallon jugs off the side of the street. They don’t have any gas stations because it’s a lot cheaper to bring it across the border from Venezuela.

We went to Parque Simon Bolivar on Tuesday night. This is the church that Simon Bolivar built when he lived in Cúcuta.

     When I was in Cúcuta, I learned just how dangerous Colombia is. The public relations director for Colombia, Virginia, told me about her father. He was kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). They are rebels that kidnap and kill a lot of people. They do a lot of the drug trafficking and terrorist acts. Her father was held hostage for 3 months along with some of his friends. All of his friends were murdered because their families couldn’t  pay the ransom. He was the only one who survived. The FARC came back again to kidnap him but a family friend warned him that they were coming again and he narrowly escaped. Then one of the members of the church told me that his 19 year-old son was murdered last year by the paramilitary. They are an extremely dangerous group in the city that kills many innocent people. His son was getting ready to leave on a LDS mission. I was told that almost anyone that you talk to in Colombia has had a friend or family member go through a similar experience. It’s very sad. Colombia can be a very dangerous place. I felt very protected, though, when I was there. Maicao was much more dangerous though.

This is Virginia. She is the one who told me about her father’s kidnapping.

This is the member of the church who talked to me about his son being murdered

     At the end of the two-day course, they did a special cultural program for us with dancing and singing. There were many interviews that local TV and radio stations did with our team. It was great publicity for the church. We were on the front page of the newspaper. We did a ceremony at the end to give the students their certificates of completion and to donate the supplies to the hospitals and clinics. We donated a ton of expensive supplies. We donated many practice dolls that you can intubate and place umbilical catheters into. They are extremely expensive here in the U.S. We also donated the manuals that cost $50 each and all participants got one. It was great. Everyone wanted to come and get pictures with me at the end. I felt like a celebrity. Ha.Ha. Everyone thinks you’re so beautiful when you are a white American girl. It’s funny. Everyone gave lots of hugs and kisses to me. They are the best people. I love their culture.

Some of our graduates in Cúcuta

     On Wednesday, we flew to the department of La Guajira. It occupies most of the Guajira Peninsula in the northeast region of the country, facing the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela. We flew into the department’s capital city, Riohacha. We were welcomed at the airport by the “first lady” of La Guajira. The airport is right on the coast. It’s very pretty. There is a lot of poverty in la Guajira. The houses near the airport were very humble. The streets are lined with purses called mochilas that are made by the Wayuu tribe. The Wayuu are an indigenous tribe and are the only tribe that was never conquered by the Spanish. They are beautiful people!

The streets of Riohacha

Purses (“Mochilas”) made by had by the indigenous Wayuu tribe. I bought two of them in Maicao.

     We ate at this amazing little restaurant that had the most delicious sea food. I ate the “Fiesta de Mariscos” or in English, the Seafood Party. It had like 10 or more different types of fresh seafood in it with a yummy creamy butter sauce. I also had fried bananas and an amazing coconut lime drink. It was really good. I usually don’t like seafood but . . . when in Rome. We ate with the first lady of La Guajira and also the first lady of Maicao. They were beautiful and wore a unique fashion that was mixed with the local clothing of the Wayuu tribe. The first lady of Maicao is half Wayuu.

The first lady of La Guajira and the first lady of Maicao

Lunch in Riohacha with the Acuña Family (far left) and the first ladies. I love the Acuña family! They are amazing. They were the first members of the church in Maicao. They used to just have a family sacrament meeting every Sunday. The branch now has 140 people in it and it’s growing very quickly. I loved the members of the church in Maicao.

This is what the outside of the restaurant looked like in Riohacha.

     We traveled to Maicao (pronounced My-Cow) accompanied by armed bodyguards. They were packin’ heat and drove us everywhere. They seemed very concerned about our safety. La Guajira is not a very safe place. In fact, it’s very dangerous. On the way to Maicao, there were lots of Wayuu people walking on the side of the road carrying water. The women have to walk for miles and miles everyday to be able to get water for their families. The “rancherias”, their little communities, are very dangerous to go into at night. We arrived at the hospital in Maicao. It’s a new hospital. They had a good facility but the problem is that they have very few staff. The Mayor came to the hospital to welcome us and thank us for coming to his city. Many Wayuu people with colorful clothing were sitting outside of the hospital because they had family members inside.

Wayuu people waiting outside for sick family members

     We set up our stuff to prepare to teach the next day and we took a tour of the hospital. It was pretty nice, but some of the practices that they were doing in the NICU were very dangerous. They had a little baby who’s ventilator broke so the Respiratory Therapist had to sit there all day and night and bag the baby with the bag and mask. That can be very dangerous. Also, there was a baby with a very high bilirubin of 25 who should have gotten an exchange transfusion but they only had one bilirubin light on him. A bilirubin that high can cause brain damage. The doctors and nurses were so nice. They are doing the very best that they can. There was only one nurse for all 14 babies. In my NICU we have 2 babies per nurse at the most. Taking a tour in the NICU of Maicao was very eye-opening. I still keep in touch with some of my friend in the NICU down there.

This is the RT bagging the baby because the ventilator broke. They only had 2 working ventilators.

Taking a tour of the NICU in Maicao

A high acuity baby in Maicao

     We stayed in the nicest hotel in Maicao but it’s still very dark and dank. I was able to Skype with Matt though because they had WiFi. I missed Matt so much!!! We had never been apart for so long.

This is the view of Maicao from my hotel

     We taught the two-day course there as well. We had a ton of people come but the culture was a little frustrating to us because only twenty-five people were on time. Some showed up four hours late. Some didn’t even show up until the next day. It’s just a different culture. Ours isn’t better. Just different. Americans are too fast paced. It was funny though. We did have a total of 75 people that we were able to train to be NRP instructors. They were really fun and kind people. I made tons of friends. I still keep in touch with a few. I had a much easier time teaching in Maicao because I knew what to expect.

Our NRP training in Maicao

Our team demonstrating a megacode

Some of the people who were in my group. They work in the NICU at this hospital.

One of my new Colombian friends gave me this traditional “manta”.

     The mayor, who I was able to get to know, was almost assassinated a couple of years before. He was shot 5 times and shot in the neck. It damaged his vocal chords so he can only talk in a whisper, like the Godfather. LOL. He is a very nice guy with a sweet family. The people who tried to kill him were political rivals. One afternoon after our NRP training, we went to visit a rancheria (one of the dwellings of the Wayuu Tribe). I sat next to him in the back seat. He had a huge revolver on his lap. I was thinking, “Hmm. I’m in Colombia in a car with 5 men with guns and I’m by myself. Should I be here?” LOL. But I was totally safe. It was just a funny situation. The rest of my group was in a different car. The mayor and his bodyguards were really funny too. There’s this song in Colombia called “La Gringa” that means the white american girl. It’s about a white American girl who travels to La Guajira and she tries to learn to speak Wayuu but no one can understand her and she can’t understand the people who speak Wayuu. They dedicated that song to me and even called the radio station so that they would play it for me. They played and sang that song for me like ten times during my time in Maicao. LOL. I love those people. They are really funny.

Me and the Mayor of Maicao, Oscar Mejía

06 La Gringa [Álbum Versión] – Click here to listen to “La Gringa”

     When we got to the rancheria, it was dark. They almost didn’t take us because it was really dangerous. They called the police to come with us too. We had to do some four wheeling in the SUV to get there. When we got there, there were about 20 Wayuu people there to greet us. They were all in their traditional clothing lined up in a row. They had their little kids and babies there. It was so cute. We got to see one of their houses. It was a small mud house, maybe 12’x12′. It had hammocks for them to sleep in and a dirt floor. Their kitchen is outside with no roof or walls. It is surrounded by cactuses instead of walls and a dirt floor with some buckets and a campfire. The people were very sweet and wanted to be in our pictures. There was a lady with her newborn baby. The Wayuu people have lay midwives that deliver the babies. They have a lot of the babies that die. Hopefully the people that we trained in NRP will provide trainings for them.

The Wayuu people lined up to meet us

One of the mud houses of the Wayuu people

Inside the Wayuu house

Inside the Wayuu house. They sleep in these hammocks.

A hundred year-old Wayuu woman

Some of the Wayuu people at the Rancheria

A cute newborn Wayuu baby

Cute Wayuu kids

This is their outside kitchen. It’s lined by cactuses and they cook over a campfire.

     At the end of the two day course, they had this amazing cultural presentation for us with dancers and cute little kids that sang the national anthem in Wayuu. We met the Queen of the Wayuu tribe. She was so beautiful. She had her face painted and she was wearing bright traditional clothing with big green pom poms on her feet. The bigger the pom poms on your feet, the more important you are. She did a special Wayuu dance for us. It was really cool. Some of the attendees of the training gave me presents. One girl gave me a mucura necklace. A mucura is what they call the water jugs that the Wayuu people use to transport water. Then the first lady of Maicao gave me a souvenir. It was a little replica of the looms that they use to make fabric. It was so sweet.

This is the Queen of the Wayuu. She did a special traditional dance for our humanitarian group.

These are Wayuu kids singing the national anthem of Colombia in their native Wayuu language.

These are Wayuu dancers who did some traditional dances for us.

     On Saturday, before we flew out, we went to the local market and got some souvenirs. It was such a colorful street. We then went to a local place to eat. We all ate turtle and arepas. It was so good! I loved it. It was the best and only turtle that I’ve ever eaten, but it really was delicious.

Shopping in the local market of Maicao

Eating yummy turtle at a local restaurant in Maicao

This is a close up look at the turtle dish. On the left is an arepa (kind of like a corn pancake). They served it with a sweet corn drink that is typical to the area.

     We then flew back to Bogotá. We got to go to the gold museum and then we were able to eat at the hotel. I ate the typical soup of Colombia, called Ajiaco. It’s like a cream of potato soup. It was delicious.

One of the pieces at the Gold Museum. It’s from the ancient inhabitants that lived in Colombia.

     My time in Colombia was incredible and I hope that I can go back someday. It has always been a dream of mine to travel around the world on humanitarian missions. My ultimate dream is to be able to go with my husband on humanitarian missions. I’m so grateful for the opportunity that I had to go. I’m excited to go to Venezuela in May on another trip. Again, I wish that Matt could come. 😦

     I’m a little nervous to go to Venezuela because Venezuela is much more dangerous than Colombia right now. When I was in Colombia, there were Venezuelan refuges that fled to Colombia to protect their families. They don’t even allow American missionaries into Venezuela now because it’s too dangerous. I know that we are protected, though, when we are on the Lord’s errand.

Next stop . . . Venezuela!!!

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Traveling to Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela « Chasing Sunsets and Dreams

  2. Pingback: Humanitarian Trip Update « Chasing Sunsets and Dreams

  3. Pingback: Humanitarian Trip Update – Colombia! Here I come! « Chasing Sunsets and Dreams

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