Combining travel with doing volunteer work has been an interest of mine for many years, and now that I am retired I can devote more time to these adventures. In my profession (cardiac and vascular sonographer) there seems to always be an opportunity somewhere in the world to make use of my skills. I believe we all have talents that can be of service somewhere, and those of us who enjoy travel and are retired can reap much satisfaction from such efforts.
I began my volunteer efforts several years ago, while I was still working full time, with a weekend in my hometown of Los Angeles. Every year, Care Harbor takes over our Sports Arena to host a weekend of treating those without health insurance to free health care including dentistry, eye care and other services. Through our national organization The American Society of Echocardiography (ASE) and USC County Hospital, a team of sonographers and physicians was organized to screen those who who were selected to need an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart). That was a very rewarding weekend, working with dedicated individuals who gave up their time to help those less fortunate. The experience hooked me on humanitarian work.
My second adventure into humanitarian volunteering was in Vietnam on a project through the ASE. We were a team of 11 sonographers and physicians for an 11-day mission which included participating in a Heart Failure conference and two days of outreach, which meant going to a clinic in an underserved rural area and scanning hundreds of people; we scanned over 400 on those two days. We also spent several days training 5 nurses at Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. This time I planned to arrive several days ahead of the team and stay after the mission's end to see more of the country.
My third and most recent humanitarian mission was to Bhaktapur, Nepal where 4 nurses were being trained to perform echocardiograms. In many parts of the world my profession does not exist; physicians do the exams. This takes valuable time away from seeing patients. In Nepal, a 1-year program was started by CardioStart International in 2018 to send volunteers like myself (“trainers”) every two weeks to train the nurses. I went in December, the last of the trainers. I spent two weeks with the women and I was impressed by their knowledge and skills. After the training, they were required to take an exam to become the first credentialed sonographers in Nepal. They all passed!
My plan was to work for those two weeks (Nepal has a 6-day week) and then spend a third week trekking on a pre-arranged 3 day/2 night hike above the Kathmandu Valley. The views of the mountains I experienced on my trek were spectacular! Following the hike, I explored more of Kathmandu city.
What I saw in Nepal was a very poor country still suffering from the effects of the 2015 earthquake, as well as a population of wonderful people. The nurses invited us into their homes, brought us Nepalese food to try during our training sessions, and made sure we were never bored. They even joined us in Kathmandu for New Years Eve.
Not everyone is suited for such adventures, so I will list a few of the inconveniences I, and others have come across:
- Stranded at an airport when the transportation you were told would be there isn’t. Lesson learned: You need to be resourceful
- “Helpful” strangers that aren’t. Lesson learned: You need to be cautious
- Accommodations that are barely one star
- Pit toilets with no toilet paper, only a bucket of water
- Power outages
- Intermittent/slow/no internet
- Inability to find food to meet dietary restrictions
But for those who are willing to experience the opportunity to live and work with other cultures and help people better their lives, I highly recommend volunteer/humanitarian travel! One last word of advice: Be sure and read up on the customs in the country you plan to visit to avoid any embarrassing moments.
I am not sure where my next volunteer mission will take me, but I’m certain it will be equally satisfying as those I have already experienced.