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Medical mission hears 'Nobel'

El Salvador wants to nominate a group of doctors and nurses from the Tampa Bay area for a Nobel prize for its good deeds.

By ED QUIOCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2001


El Salvador wants to nominate a group of doctors and nurses from the Tampa Bay area for a Nobel prize for its good deeds.

For nine years, a team of doctors, nurses and volunteers from the Tampa Bay area have brought medical supplies, free health care and hope to thousands of impoverished and sick people in El Salvador.

Founded by Dr. Roberto Araujo and known as the Mission of Mercy, the group travels to the mountain town of Jucuapa in the eastern part of the country. There they do everything from dispense vitamins to perform surgeries that enable patients to see and walk.

In gratitude, residents and lawmakers in El Salvador want to nominate the Mission of Mercy for a Nobel peace prize, Salvadoran politician David Trejo told the St. Petersburg Times last week.

Officials are gathering information to submit for the nomination, and the mission should get a formal notice from the country in November.

The idea of nominating the mission for a Nobel peace prize has been around for some time, Trejo said through a translator. The effort gained momentum when the country's legislative assembly honored the mission with a formal declaration about two months ago.

The mission helps more than just the town of Jucuapa, Trejo said. The group's charity touches the entire country.

"We are overwhelmed," said Araujo, an oncologist and hematologist with offices in New Port Richey and Tarpon Springs. He was quick to point out that the nomination is for the entire group, which consists of mostly Tampa Bay doctors, nurses and volunteers.

Members of the medical mission "leave everything to go to a country and give themselves and their knowledge to treat . . . people they don't even know," he said. "We are very proud that they are being recognized."

Volunteers pay their own way to El Salvador and some even use their vacation time to go on the trip. Several doctors and nurses spend countless hours collecting boxes of donations, ranging from medical supplies to used eyeglasses and toys, to make the mission a success, Araujo said.

"You cannot believe how generous the American people are," Araujo said. "You fill containers with generosity."

About 60,000 Salvadorans have been helped since the mission started in 1993. The first group to go to Jucuapa, which is where Araujo grew up, consisted of 15 doctors and nurses, along with a lab technician and an electrical engineer.

"The response was so overwhelming . . . we just had to come back and make the sacrifice for the second trip," Araujo said.

This summer, the group had 53 doctors, nurses and volunteers from the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Minnesota, Washington D.C., and Texas. The group evaluated thousands of people who traveled from as far as Honduras and Guatemala. Each doctor had a team of nurses and technicians to help with surgery.

"It's a special feeling," said Dr. Frederick Roever, a senior internist at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital who has gone on the mission the past five years. "It makes us feel like we are doing something. It gives us a sense of self-worth. That's what it's all about."

Every year, the group comes back with amazing stories that bring doctors and nurses "back to their roots."

"We are not here to fill out insurance forms and argue with HMOs," Roever said. "What are we here for? We are here to cure people. When we go to El Salvador, we are able to be the pure warrior, uninhibited by all the restrictions and red tape that get between a healer and the patient."

The mission has so many success stories it's difficult to list them all.

In 1998, there was Maria Cortez, a 3-year-old girl with a tangerine-sized tumor in the middle of her face. The group flew her to Tampa to remove the tumor, and her story gained national attention.

Daniel Rayes walked for more than two days to see if the doctors could repair the cleft palate and cleft lip he had from birth. Then there was 7-year-old Claudia Bonilla, who was burned by kerosene when she was 3. The burn caused scar tissue that prevented her from moving her right arm freely.

There are the hundreds or so who can see once again thanks to the mission. Others have been helped very simply, like the paralyzed man who had lived indoors in bed for 30 years. The group gave him a wheelchair that allowed him to leave his house.

Two years ago, the mission delivered their first baby. The 16-year-old mother named the girl Merceda Florida -- "Mercy Florida."

Araujo can recall performing surgery those first few trips in a room with broken windows using lamps powered by car batteries. From plastic surgery to transplants, the group finds a way to work their miracles.

"We have done everything by now," Araujo said.

The group's new goal is to bring open-heart surgery to the country.

"That is a tremendous undertaking," Araujo said. "We will need a lot of help."

When Trejo, the politician from El Salvador, called Araujo about two weeks ago to tell him about the nomination, Araujo said he couldn't sleep that night. He couldn't wait to share the good news with the doctors and nurses who have given so much.

"They ask for nothing and they give everything," Araujo said. "I told them . . . this nomination is for everyone."

- Staff member Alicia Olazabal contributed to this report.

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