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Doctors traveling to El Salvador to provide medical care seek everything from volunteers to Happy Meal toys.
By KAREN LACHENAUER
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001
Anyone feeling overrun by those tiny toys from children's fast-food meals can take heart that the toys can go far, to El Salvador, and light up a child's face at a medical clinic where once a year Tampa Bay area doctors perform their miracles.
This summer, the non-profit Mission of Mercy will make its ninth visit to the poor Central American country. First, though, the team of doctors is calling for donations to help Salvadorans, especially those who were made homeless by two deadly earthquakes since mid January and are facing rainy winter months sleeping outdoors.
Sheets that residents can pull over themselves at night, clothing and shoes in small sizes -- since few Salvadorans are taller than 5-foot-8 -- and canned food are among items sought. The group plans to send a container of donations in mid April to meet up with the doctors when they arrive at Jucuapa in July.
The team is also asking for donations of large, military-style tents that can be used as operating rooms by hospitals damaged by the earthquakes.
"Most hospitals have been damaged (and) are not safe," said Dr. Roberto Araujo, a Tarpon Springs and New Port Richey oncologist who founded the mission. "The tents can be used for operations and services until they rebuild."
The doctors are even seeking candy and pasta for an expanded mission because of the quakes. In Santa Elena and Santiago, they plan to serve spaghetti while screening patients for surgery and other medical treatment. At the end of meals, they plan to hand out toys.
Any toys are good, except for large ones, Araujo said.
"The smallest possible, like those toys in Happy Meals," said Araujo, who brought a 3-year-old girl from El Salvador to Tampa in 1998 so surgeons could remove a beet-sized tumor from her nose.
"You can put a thousand of those (toys) in a box and give one to each child," Araujo said. The group's doctors are used to dealing with large crowds, often finding 2,000 people lined up when they open the clinic in the morning.
The mission's ranks have swelled as well. This year, 50 people plan to travel to El Salvador, up from from 37 last year. They include 17 medical doctors, six more than last year, support personnel and family members who pay their own way and stay with families, sometimes in houses that have no running water or electricity.
The clinic in the town of Jucuapa, which the team visits once a year. The houses where the volunteers stay in town should be safe, Araujo said. They were built with U.S. help after a 1951 earthquake. They were virtually the only structures left standing in Jucuapa after the recent quakes.
Two ophthalmologists will be, for the most part, the only surgeons operating at the Jucuapa clinic. There, they will remove cataracts from one eye per patient because of the pressing need. Patients can return next year to have the other eye done.
Two podiatrists in the party will help repair club feet. Araujo suspects poor nutrition and babies born to extremely young mothers are reasons the condition is so common.
But the Mission of Mercy's doctors heal the sick in whatever way they can in the clinic Araujo has stocked with donated equipment. They also use local hospitals.
A neurosurgeon, infectious disease specialist and rheumatologist are among the doctors going. A thoracic surgeon may perform the group's first on-site open-heart surgery in a children's hospital in the capital city of San Salvador, Araujo said.
Dr. William Atkinson, a surgeon who retired two years ago from a 28-year practice in Tarpon Springs, is returning for the second time. He said the country's lack of sophistication allows the doctors to work unhampered by bureaucratic restraints.
"It's just fun," Atkinson said. "We don't have to deal with anybody telling us, 'I don't know if you have to do that.' We just go and do our stuff."
Donations of vitamins and over-the-counter medications, even those that have passed their expiration dates, are welcome, though Araujo does not want prescription medicines. He also does not want shower curtains or normal-sized pillows, but will accept small pillows, light blankets and plastic sheets, children's clothes and pajamas, towels, toiletries such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, eyeglasses and sunglasses.
The one discipline the group could still use is anyone, including nurses, trained in giving anesthesia.
In general, "the more (recruits) the better, because right now, we're going to see about 15,000 people who are in need," said Araujo, who is from Jucuapa. The quakes destroyed many adobe houses and residents "are devastated," he said.
"They've had such bad luck: 12 years of war," which ended in 1992 and enabled the mission to start, Araujo said. "They were just coming out of it, they were rebuilding, and now these earthquakes. It's unbelievable."
Anyone wishing to donate to this year's Mission of Mercy to El Salvador can call Dr. Roberto Araujo's offices after 5 p.m. The numbers are (727) 942-1259 and (727) 849-6690.