Helping Hands

A Rockland County nurse recalls her trip to Brazil as part of a Hudson Valley medical mission team


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The city of Aquiraz, on the northeast coast of Brazil, is a vacation heaven. It has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with miles of fine white sand, clear turquoise waters, and a constant offshore breeze to keep things comfortable in the steady, 90-degree heat. Here visitors can sample the pleasures of South America’s largest aquatic park, marvel at the treasures in the Museum of Sacred Arts, and enjoy a still-favorable exchange rate.

But when Ann Bennett-Collazuol went to Aquiraz last August, the sights she saw were mostly limited to the inside of the Hospital Municipal de Aquiraz and the surrounding area. Despite the town’s popularity as a tourist destination, most of the local residents live in poverty. Each morning on her way to the hospital, Bennett-Collazuol marveled at their simple cinderblock houses, and the cows and chickens that wandered freely along the dirt roads; going back to her hotel after dark, she couldn’t help but notice the twinkling lights from the high-priced resorts nearby. Bennett-Collazuol, a 53-year-old nurse from Nyack, was in Aquiraz as part of a team of two dozen Hudson Valley medical volunteers who traveled to the town as part of a medical mission to provide health care to poor children in the area.

A young patient named Kettlen
relaxes just hours after surgery

This wasn’t Bennett-Collazuol’s first trip to South America. That took place when she was 20 years old — “one of those times in your life when you don’t really know what you want to do or where you’re going,” she says. She traveled to Ecuador with her Spanish professor for a cultural immersion course. In what proved to be a defining moment in her life, physician friends of her host family allowed Bennett-Collazuol to visit the clinics where they worked. “And there was one woman I’ll never forget,” she recalls. “She was all yellow from hepatitis, and she was just holding me. I didn’t know what to do, and the urge in me rose: I’ve got to be a nurse, I’ve got to learn how to take care of people. I found my direction.” Earlier this year, when a coworker told her that there was an opening on the Aquiraz mission, Bennett-Collazuol jumped at the chance. “I always felt I needed to get back to these people, to pay back for what I’ve been given in this incredible profession,” she says.

The HTC team, including nurse Ann Bennett-Collazuol (front row, third from right) and photographer Annabel Clark (front row, far right)

The trip was sponsored by Healing the Children Northeast, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that helps provide free medical and surgical treatment to needy children all over the world. The volunteer surgeons, physicians, anesthesiologists, nurses, and technicians pay their own way — flights, hotels, meals, visas — and provide all the supplies and equipment needed for their work. The team Bennett-Collazuol joined planned to focus on cleft lip and palate surgery, and drew most of its members from Hudson Valley hospitals, including Vassar Brothers and St. Francis in Poughkeepsie, and Fishkill Ambulatory Surgery Center. The team leader, Dr. Manoj Abraham, a facial plastic surgeon based in Poughkeepsie, had already been on about 10 missions. “To be able to provide life-altering care for these kids — who have minimal access to health care and these kinds of procedures — is immensely gratifying,” he says. “These trips are a way to make a difference.”


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