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Michel Barsoum, M.B., Ch.B., and Andrew Calvin, M.D., are used to having ready access to the most up-to-date medical resources and equipment at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. That changed dramatically when the two cardiologists traveled to Bolivia for a week in summer 2017 to provide free care to people who were otherwise unable to receive medical attention.
"Bolivia is a beautiful country and very safe. But it's also very poor, and the conditions were sometimes pretty spartan," Dr. Calvin says. "We would use whatever facilities the people had, from simple buildings to shacks with dirt floors."
The trip marked Dr. Barsoum's third year going to Bolivia and Dr. Calvin's second. They traveled with a group of 16 people that included members of the Coptic Medical Association of North America. Their team had physicians, dentists, an optometrist and medical students, as well as other nonmedical volunteers.
Dr. Calvin's wife and two sons, ages 6 and 8, joined him on the journey. In Bolivia, his wife organized, packaged and distributed medications to patients. His sons played with other children, shared toys and gave out donated items.
It was an eye-opening experience for the boys — to see poverty and hear others who speak a different language — Dr. Calvin says. But they enjoyed it, and the 8-year-old is already talking about wanting to go back to Bolivia.
During the trip, Drs. Calvin and Barsoum worked together in a clinic in Santa Cruz and in small villages up to two hours away from the city. Most of their patients do not have an opportunity to see a physician except when visited by one who is volunteering. That can present some challenging situations. For example, one of the patients Dr. Barsoum saw had a blood pressure reading of 260/120 — the highest he's ever seen.
"Sometimes these patients have conditions that they are born with, but they have never been diagnosed," Dr. Calvin says. "Some of them already are adults by the time we are able to examine them."
The patients they treated were beyond grateful for their services, according to Dr. Barsoum, with some hugging the physicians to show their appreciation.
"The conditions were poor, but the people were so grateful," Dr. Barsoum says. "They know it costs us money, and it takes a lot to go there, but they are happy that we still want to help them."
"The most rewarding part of the entire trip was to be able to show people that we care," Dr. Calvin adds. "We don't always have the ideal medicine or a good treatment, but you can always show them that you care."