Helping Hands

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

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Evelyn, 5, waits to be screened by doctors

The Aquiraz mission began with months of raising money and gathering supplies. The kids at St. Paul’s School in Nyack, where Bennett-Collazuol works as the school nurse, were excited about the idea of helping children in another country; they brought in bags of toys, coloring books, and soccer balls, as well as monetary donations from their parents. The team came together for “packing parties,” getting to know each other as they catalogued and stowed the supplies needed to equip four operating rooms — everything from hand-washing gel to electrical transformers. “I don’t think I slept for a week before we left,” says Bennett-Collazuol. “You’re going so far out of your box, to a foreign country where you don’t know what you’re going to get into. You hear these stories about how the mothers walk for days with their children to bring them in for surgery.”

Bennett-Collazuol headed for Kennedy Airport at about 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in early August. A 10-hour flight was followed by another three-hour flight, and it was 4 a.m. Monday when the team got to their hotel — “a teeny-tiny place,” says Bennett-Collazuol, but “very homey.” Owned by a local couple, the hotel provided two meals a day, but there was no air conditioning, fans, or hot water.
After a shower, breakfast, and a couple of hours of rest, the group headed to the hospital to meet the staff, start screening patients, and set up the operating rooms. “That first day, it felt like 35 hours,” she says. “But you’re not tired because you’re so excited. It’s adrenaline and it’s joy.”

(From top): Evelyn and her mother walk into surgery. In the recovery room (center), Evelyn is surrounded by a team of volunteers. One day after her cleft palate surgery, Evelyn and her mother relax at home (bottom)

By 7 a.m. the next morning, the medical team was ready for surgery. Some of the procedures were extensive, and all were dramatic. “You see a little child walk in with a harelip,” says Bennett-Collazuol, who worked as a circulating nurse. “By the time surgery’s done, the child looks normal. Now the child can speak, the child can eat, the mother can look at the child and not feel guilty. Seeing that kind of transformation... I was crying, the mothers were crying.

“To be a part of something like that,” she continues, “is like a miracle. And to see these talented doctors, the work they do — it’s so pure, there’s no bureaucracy. It’s what you became a doctor or nurse for.”

There were three full surgical days on the Aquiraz mission; in all, 48 surgeries were performed, and many lives changed. The team also offered postoperative care and even home visits to make sure the parents fully understood the after-care instructions. They had study sheets with basic questions in Portuguese written out phonetically, and translators were on hand. But they discovered they didn’t always need a lot of words to communicate the important things.

One mother made a deep impression on Bennett-Collazuol. The woman came in alone with her five-year-old daughter, who needed extensive facial reconstruction. “Her daughter was in surgery for a long time, and she was just such a wreck, pacing the halls,” Bennett-Collazuol recalls. “I’m a rather large woman, and I wrapped her in my arms and hugged her until she calmed down. The feeling that passed was so intense.”

It was that level of emotion that made the experience so profound for Bennett-Collazuol. After returning to Nyack, “it was hard to get back into the normalcy of a regular day,” she says. “I’d rather be out there on missions, making huge differences in people’s lives.” Nevertheless, she says she is more joyful now. “Sometimes I feel I’m not doing enough here, but I’m more content because of this experience — it’s opened up a door. They talk about how global the world is, all one. I never felt it as much as through this. It wasn’t ‘them’ and ‘us’ — it was ‘we.’ I would do it again in a heartbeat.”


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