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For doctor, trip was mission of healing, faith


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 25, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- As an ear, nose and throat surgeon, Dr. Trina Espinola is committed to a demanding vocation and the rewards it brings.

Her calling, she said, coupled with a strong Catholic upbringing, has its obligations.

She recently returned from a trip to Brazil, where she served on a 16-member team that provided medical care to some of that nation's most indigent people.

"It was certainly something that I wanted to do," Dr. Espinola said, sitting in her office at Suncoast Medical Center.

"I certainly feel that as Christians, we are expected to give back for all we have received. I have been very fortunate," she said.

For Dr. Espinola, giving back has meant helping patients from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic and battered women in Louisiana. She also has offered her services to CASA, a local organization that assists victims of domestic abuse.

Earlier this year, though, Dr. Espinola decided to venture farther afield and applied to serve as a volunteer with Global Outreach, a division of Catholic Health East, a multi-institutional, Catholic health system that is co-sponsored by 13 religious communities.

The Treasure Island resident was selected to join Global Outreach's first effort in Brazil. The group already assists indigent patients in Peru, Haiti and Guatemala. Next year, said program director Sister Betty Scanlon, Global Outreach will send volunteers to Kingston, Jamaica.

Dr. Espinola's November trip to South America took her to Anapolis, Brazil. There, she and other volunteers performed 56 surgeries, saw about 400 primary-care patients, including many from a village with a high incidence of leprosy, took care of 45 physical and occupational therapy cases, and attended 238 optometry patients.

"That was done in about six working days. They did a lot of work. It was wonderful," Sister Scanlon said, speaking from her office in Newtown Square, Pa.

"We did a lot," said Dr. Espinola, who, in addition to taking care of patients, shared new techniques with a local ear, nose and throat surgeon.

"I taught him to do endoscopic sinus surgery, which he had never done," she said.

The medical staff at the Santa Casa Hospital, where she was stationed, is handicapped by a severe lack of resources, Dr. Espinola said.

"If I had to pick a year at the hospital there, I would say they were probably practicing medicine probably prior to the 1960s, probably the 1950s," she said of the facility, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, an order with headquarters in New York.

"Things like disposables that we use to decrease the rate of infection, certainly they don't have. . . . They had one X-ray machine that I know was older than me," said Dr. Espinola, who is 39. "Even the lighting was horrible."

Attempts by the volunteer team to provide the hospital with modern equipment and supplies were partially blocked by the Brazilian government, said Dr. Espinola, who took about $20,000 worth of donated equipment in her luggage.

"We were held up in customs . . . for three to four hours," she said.

Though she eventually was allowed to take the equipment into the country, other supplies designated for a much-needed intensive-care unit have yet to be released.

Global Outreach, Sister Scanlon said, has been told that it could retrieve the equipment for the right price.

"We're talking like $25,000. For a program like ours, that is an awful lot of money," she said, explaining that Global Outreach depends largely on grants and donations to do its work.

The organization, however, is not discouraged and will continue to send volunteers to Brazil, she said.

"Our plan is to work with some of the political persons in the ministry of health," she said.

Naturally, Dr. Espinola said, the volunteer team was disappointed with the turn of events.

"Then again, you have to be flexible," she said.

With that in mind, the volunteers, who were forced to forgo certain surgeries, soon discovered there were other contributions they could make to the people they wanted to help. For instance, they taught CPR to the hospital staff.

Among the surgeries they did get to perform were those to correct cleft lips and facial deformities. Most of the operations were on children.

"We certainly did some adult surgery too, but that was probably only 20 to 30 percent," Dr. Espinola said.

Dr. Espinola, who is Bayfront Medical Center's section chairwoman of the otolaryngology oral maxillofacial and dental surgery, has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Tulane University and a medical degree from Tulane's school of medicine. She was the first ear, nose and throat surgeon in Florida to begin using a computerized guidance system for complicated surgeries in the sinuses and near the front of the brain. The system allows some cancer patients to avoid disfiguring surgery and makes sinus operations safer.

A self-described "jazz fanatic," she comes from a family in which both parents have careers in the medical profession. Her father, Dr. Joseph Espinola, is a dentist in Tampa and her mother, Nila Espinola, is a registered nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The trip to Brazil was rewarding, said Trina Espinola, who grew up in Tampa.

"South Americans are very warm, very loving people," she said. "Regardless of how impoverished they are, they still have hope. They always seem very uplifted."

Sister Scanlon understands the rewards of trips like the one to Brazil. Mercy missions, she said, benefit not just those being helped, but also those who volunteer.

The experience, "brings out the best in people and the best in their spirit," she said.

"(Volunteers) would say to me it really helped them get in touch with what they originally went into health care for," she said.

Sister Scanlon, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order, added that one does not have to be Catholic or have any religious leaning to be accepted as a volunteer on a Global Outreach mission.

"It's not about religion. It's more about people's hearts that really animates them to volunteer. It's people who have felt they are really blessed in life and want to give back. There are a fair amount of people who are spiritually oriented, searching people who are very convinced that it is very important to do good works," she said. "We are looking for the person who is ready for a growth experience in their life, professionally and personally and, of course, that always overflows into the spiritual."

Founded in 1997, Catholic Health East, Global Outreach's parent corporation, lists among its core values a "reverence for each person" and a "commitment to those who are poor." Additionally, the organization, whose facilities include 13 hospitals, says each person is "a manifestation of the sacredness of human life."

For Dr. Espinola, Global Outreach's Catholic identity was key when she decided to volunteer with the organization.

"I wanted to do it with a Catholic group because I am Catholic," she said. "I just like that atmosphere. . . . It certainly is in alignment with my beliefs."

The trip to Brazil helped her to put those beliefs into action.

"When you are fortunate and when you are blessed, I think it is important to share your blessings with other people, whether it is talent, wealth, intelligence or good health," she said. "I think, as a Christian, it is important to always try and relieve pain if you can, whether it is emotional pain or physical pain."

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