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Sweet Relief

Aloha Medical Mission provides free medical care for those in need, here and abroad.


Dr. Vernon Ansdell with a child who lost his family in the 2004 tsunami.

Photo courtesy of the Aloha Medical Mission

Doctors are busy people. They have patients to treat and lives to save. So when they actually get around to taking some vacation time, most probably want to get away from it all and relax with a fruity drink and a comfy lounge chair, right? Not so for the volunteer doctors of Aloha Medical Mission (AMM). During their vacation time, the doctors—with the help of other volunteer medical and nonmedical workers—spend long days treating lines of underprivileged patients in foreign countries, entirely on their own dime. 

For the past 25 years, AMM has partnered with health organizations in 15 host countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to fund more than 100 overseas missions. Thousands of patients too poor to pay for proper care are given free medical and surgical attention. The doctors perform such procedures as cataract surgeries and repairing cleft lips and palates, as well as general outpatient concerns. During disasters, AMM also sends teams to aid in recovery efforts.
Dr. Michael Healy examines a child in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Photo courtesy of the Aloha Medical Mission


AMM vice president Vernon Ansdell, M.D., has been on many missions over his 15 years with the group, but it is disaster relief that sticks out most in his mind. Witness to recent devastations such as the tsunami in Indonesia and a massive mudslide in the Philippines, Ansdell says the difficult work can be an incredibly rewarding experience to take back home and apply to his day job as a physician at Kaiser Permanente. Even with few resources, he believes, a lot can be done with a little hope.

“When you see people who’ve lost everything—I mean, literally everything: the clothes off their backs, all their belongings, their houses, their families, their friends—you would think they would just give up,” Ansdell says. “Yet they’re still able to keep going. It’s amazing. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that people can deal with that sort of catastrophe in their lives.”
AMM hopes to send a team to Myanmar as soon as the government allows. Additionally, the group has encouraged self-sufficiency through training for doctors abroad. AMM started free health clinics in Bangladesh and created a fellowship for ophthalmology that has provided more than 20 visiting doctors from the Philippines a chance to learn new procedures to treat patients back home.   

Seeking to meet the health needs of the uninsured in our own backyard, AMM created an interim free clinic in Kalihi in 1995. Like the overseas missions, the medical and dental clinic relies on the volunteer services of its doctors, dentists and medical assistants. It is the only 100-percent-free clinic of its kind in the state, yet it does not compete with other clinics that provide more long-term care. As an interim clinic, patients—including the homeless, recent immigrants and the unemployed—are provided with short-term care only and then connected with ongoing services elsewhere if needed. A variety of services, including immunizations, physicals, family planning, cancer screenings, tooth extractions, root canals and more, are available to all patients free of charge.
Medical director Jerry Allison, M.D., believes the clinic plays an important role in the community. “When you’re healthy, you can get a job, you can take care of your family,” he says. “We take care of people in the short run, so they can get the shots or the physicals they need. Keeping people in school or employed—that’s a very important part of healthcare that people don’t usually think about.”
Schoolchildren in tsunami-affected Aceh, Indonesia.

Photo courtesy of the Aloha Medical Mission

After recent layoffs from companies such as Aloha Airlines, Allison hopes to reach more people in need. “Last year, there were roughly 58,000 uninsured people in Hawaii. We only saw 2,400 of them. Where are the rest of them going?” he asks. Although the overseas mission of AMM is relatively well known in the community, the clinic is not. Allison would like to double the number of patients seen in the next year, but he says they need more of two things: patients and doctors. “We’re always recruiting more doctors. The more we have, the more we can be open and the more patients we can see.”


For more on the Aloha Medical Mission, visit www.alohamedicalmission.org.




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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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