Care on the wing

Local pilots ferry doctors to Central America for flying house calls

Bob Lober stands by the plane used to ferry volunteers and supplies for the Flying Doctors.

Bob Lober stands by the plane used to ferry volunteers and supplies for the Flying Doctors.

An elderly woman covers her face, crying in church over being able to read the Bible for the first time in 20 years after receiving new reading glasses. A young man smiles ear to ear, overjoyed that he now has a set of false teeth replacing the rotted ones he had super-glued back into his gums. A weathered, 70-year-old man rides more than 70 miles on horseback through the countryside of rural Mexico to get an abscessed tooth pulled.

These are the memories of Bob Lober and Art Schmauder, volunteer pilots and assistants for the Flying Doctors, a nonprofit group that sets up weekend medical clinics in rural parts of Mexico and Central America.

“People are really in need,” said Schmauder, president of the Reno-Tahoe chapter, High Sierra. “We’re fortunate enough to offer some help.”

High Sierra is one of four chapters in the United States, totaling about 300 members. Lober is vice chairman of the LMV Corps, a committee of High Sierra.

Volunteers say the interactive experience sets the Flying Doctors apart from other help organizations. Rosie Abecassis agrees. She’s a University of Nevada, Reno biology student who volunteered last year for a trip to Bahía Asunción, Mexico.

“It’s so much more fulfilling because you are actually seeing what you are helping achieve,” Abecassis said.

Abecassis is one of more than a dozen volunteers from UNR to be part of the program in the last four years. Volunteers come from all over the United States and other countries such as Spain, Canada and France to assist people in Isla Cedros, Bahía Asunción, Bahía Tortugas, Isla Natividad, Mulegé, San Ignacio and Ensenada, Mexico, as well as Central American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador. One chapter even has a program that assists a poor community in Oasis, Calif.

Members each pay $200 for airplane fuel as well as money for food and lodging. The group has fund-raisers throughout the year to pay for other costs. Groups like the Lions Club also donate equipment and supplies. The Flying Doctors make the money go as far as possible—for instance, by buying supplies like reading glasses from a dollar store.

The program began in 1974 when flying instructor Milt Camp was asked to accompany a student who was afraid of landing on a dirt runway in Mexico. The student, who was also a doctor, was planning to set up a weekend clinic for rural people without access to health care.

When Camp returned to his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard, he put up a bulletin board notice asking for donations for his next trip. He received boxes of supplies from workers, and an article ran in the employee newsletter. By fall of that year, the program had about 45 members and started getting international news coverage.

Camp, who is president of the Central American Chapter, recalled the special care taken with a young Mexican girl with polio. The group worked with doctors at Stanford to make braces for her legs. But after various braces kept breaking, one of the specialists flew to Mexico with the doctors to assess the situation.

“Before the plane touched the ground, he said, ‘I know what the problem is—they don’t have sidewalks,'” Camp said.

The specialist made metal braces for the girl that worked. The volunteers remember the gratitude from the villagers.

Lober says that one of the biggest rewards for the doctors is seeing the people’s appreciation. He recalls some stepping out of their houses to shout “Go with God” when the volunteers walked by.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” Lober said. “You see how thankful they are.”

The clinics are often set up in schools or town centers. Camp said the Flying Doctors have come a long way from their beginning days of only pulling teeth, although the technological limitations of the villages have called for creativity. He remembered hand cranks and scuba tanks being the only forms of power. Today, the doctors have portable dental units and compressors, although they are still very limited in what they can do.

The typical trip consists of 10 volunteers who leave on a Thursday, work in the clinic on Friday and part of Saturday and then have the rest of the time to explore until their return home Sunday.

Lober said the clinic sees about 80 people each trip. The doctors give away 300 to 400 pairs of eyeglasses that are donated by the Lions Club.

Robert Schmidt, who has been a member of the Flying Doctors for about two years, was a co-pilot on the March trip. While on the ground, he helped attend to the whirlwind of patients.

“There was a new appointment every 20 minutes,” Schmidt said. “We were just running them through like crazy.”

Dan Lyons, an optometrist, who was also part of the March trip, said that the bonds formed with the other volunteers add to the experience.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Lyons said. “Not only are you helping other people, but there is a camaraderie you establish with people on the trip.”

Translators and other volunteers accompany the team. Translators Esther Bousguet and Susan Bruno have been on many trips. “It’s an honor to be a translator because you’re with the people,” Bruno said. “You laugh with the people and make the people feel comfortable.”

Bruno said that the culture shock can sometimes be problematic for first-timers.

“If you are not exposed to other cultures, you go there, and it’s different from what you know, but it’s not wrong from what you know,” Bruno said.

Besides pilots, doctors and translators, the program needs volunteers to help with the odds and ends, Lober said.

“There really is a need for people to help who don’t have all the training of a medical person.”