What Came Out of Tzu Chi’s 17th Medical Outreach in Mexico

TIMA  |  September 16, 2019

Author: Mary Keh & Yuan Yen Hong
Translation: Olivia Kuo
Editor: Dilber Shatursun
Photos by Dennis Lee, Mary Keh

After the 2017 Puebla Earthquake struck the heart of Mexico, Tzu Chi volunteers rushed to conduct an assessment of the situation on the ground. Since, and in tandem with the Tzu Chi International Medical Association, or TIMA, the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation has been sending medical volunteers from the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and more, three to four times a year to offer vulnerable residents access to quality medical care that includes consultations, dental treatments, pain therapies, ophthalmology, and pharmaceutical services.

The Medical Foundation also created booths that focused on health education, the promotion of recycling, charity, vegetarianism, and bamboo banks to showcase a holistic outlook as to how we may have healthier and happier communities. In fact, the Medical Foundation hosted its 17th medical outreach in Mexico from August 22-27, 2019, successfully serving 4,569 patients across Jojutla and Mexico City.

For volunteers, the draw of participating in medical outreaches is simple: they can be sure to expect the unexpected.

A Not So Routine Endeavor

Every morning at 7 AM, volunteers gather to listen to Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. Then, at 8:30 AM, the day’s opening ceremony begins with a welcome speech delivered by the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s CEO, Dr. William Keh, and songs presented in sign language by the volunteers. Local volunteers and community residents enthusiastically attempted to perform the sign language movements and present the song “We are Family.” And, our volunteers showed they treat their patients as such.

Take Dr. Willie Chen for example; though there were many patients to see, he performed detailed exams of patients and careful instructions on eye medications. There was also a day where he had to perform 7 surgeries. His dedication and his attentiveness reflected the care all at Tzu Chi strive to give.

Eye Opening Experiences

For many volunteers, it was their first time contributing to such an event. Dennis Hsu, for instance, traveled to Mexico for the first time and to participate in his first medical outreach. He expected the worst; including chaos and battling against unsanitary conditions. To his pleasant surprise, the Tzu Chi medical outreach was far more well-organized and more hygienic than he could have anticipated.

On an average day, Tzu Chi’s eyecare services will see roughly 40 patients. This includes vision tests, eye drops, consultations, and eye surgeries, if necessary. Though Dennis has shadowed Dr. Chen at his clinic back in the US, assisting him in Mexico was as nerve-wracking as it was exciting.

Some surgeries took over 4 hours, requiring a tremendous amount of strength and energy from Dr. Chen and Dennis both. Dr. Chen usually uses a seated stool for operations; here in Mexico, they sat on the edges of tables. Talk about thinking on your feet.

What Dennis learned most from the clinical experience: that humor and a positive attitude were critical in dealing with life-altering experiences. Despite seeing severe cases that involved blood and other difficult sights, Dr. Chen lightened the mood with his optimism and cheer, setting a path for smooth sailing for both the medical team and patients alike.

Still, the outreach was the product of months of logistics coordination, phone calls, and teamwork with TIMA. Most importantly, it relied on the compassion and dedication of volunteers, just like Dennis, who humbly embraced the gratitude of his patients and was glad to have contributed.

Turning a New, Gold Leaf

Retiree Eddie Lam, too, gleaned much from his experience in Mexico.

His wife invited him to join her for Tzu Chi’s latest medical mission there, to which he wondered what a former banker could contribute. Mrs. Lam encouraged her husband to “just do whatever Dr. Deng, Dr. Keh, and Tzu Chi asks you to!” So, on his first day, Eddie worked in pain therapy and thereafter helped in dental care.

While he was taken aback with the amount of physical labor involved, Eddie put his best foot forward, witnessing the kind and loving spirit of his fellow volunteers in the process. Eddie walked away from the experience deeply impressed with the level of organization of TIMA & the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, with their logistics and resource management in particular.

Leading with Cheer

Dr. Ellen Liu also joined an international outreach for the first time after Tzu Chi volunteer Mary Keh encouraged her. She made a big effort to learn the gestures for the sign language song “Beautiful Sunday,” and was touched by the warmth she witnessed throughout the entire event.

She was very happy to have the opportunity to work alongside Tzu Chi volunteer Tzu Shi Chang during activities with local residents. While TIMA doctors see patients, volunteers just like Tzu Shi help keep spirits high as others wait to be seen. Dr. Liu was proud to take part and join.

She was also thankful to the Western doctors for sharing their suggestions to resolve the ups and downs at their service stations. Even if there were many problems with medical equipment and shortages of medical assistants, teamwork and communication helped them rise above it. Inspired, Dr. Liu can’t wait to share her experience with her peers at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and encourage them to join TIMA, too.

The 17th Times the Charm

Though having participated in many medical outreaches by now, Dr. Chen said that somehow, the spirit of this outreach feels rather different to him. Overwhelmed with emotion, he shared that “if I were to use a Christian phrase to describe it, it is like the Holy Spirit being touched”.

Dr. Chen pondered as to why this time was different, and he realized it is because this time, he shared his experience with others and felt the power of sharing. In fact, doing so, according to Tzu Chi, enables the amplification of each individual’s experience. Before attending, Dr. Chen hadn’t realized he had to share his daily experiences with his colleagues. Even then, sharing is not always easy. Nevertheless, he now understands its power and the value of its impact.

Perhaps what touched Dr. Chen most is witnessing each volunteer’s tireless efforts. Some volunteers would offer each other relaxing massages or acupuncture treatments; others, like Sister Tzu Shi, would be like an energizer bunny- recharging everyone’s emotional batteries with song and dance. Everyone in the Tzu Chi family gave a valuable contribution.

To Love and Be Loved

During the outreach, Dr. Hong Yuan Yen, a dentist, observed that the cooperation among the retired doctors and volunteers was sublime because they were at their most relaxed. 

He also gave credit where it was due to the energy and contributions of younger volunteers, who took time off from their work to volunteer without pay.

Dr. Yen reflected on the outreach and recalled the challenges in setting up the dental care stations. Initially, many team members were not familiar with the dental equipment that they had to figure out how to setup a single station from the bottom up. Few to none of them even knew each other, much less worked together before. Yet, the unexpected harmony of ‘East meets West’ and the amazing collaboration with the ophthalmology care departments was a sight for sore eyes.

Overwhelmed and grateful for what he had experienced, Dr. Yen felt a strong sense of belonging during this medical outreach. Oh, the joys to love and be loved.

If you would like to get involved with TIMA or the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation as a volunteer, sign up today, or empower our efforts with whatever value you can.