Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Partners in Health of Maine

We have all heard about the good work being done by Partners in Health, but there is another PIH, lesser known, but equally well-intentioned. It is called Partners in Health of Maine. It is a nonprofit, nondenominational organization whose mission is to provide health services, training, education and volunteer opportunities for health care providers in third world countries. Its activities have been limited to Central America, with a focus on Nicaragua and Guatemala. The organization grew around the volunteer work of Dr. Robert Bach, a general surgeon from Maine, and other health care workers who had been volunteering in Central America since 1975. The two PIHs started at about the same time, and I guess both want to keep the name!

Most of the work of PIH of Maine has centered on the Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAN), Nicaragua’s largest province, which occupies approximately a fifth of the land area and is located on the Northeastern Caribbean coast. This area is inhabited by indigenous Miskito Indians and people of Afro-Caribe and Spanish descent.

A friend of a friend provides some of the color of the Maine organization in a recent email, written after attending a briefing in the US, complete with a story of low-cost innovation by a clever team:

I am going to Nicaragua because I was invited by old friends from Waterville. John and Mary got involved five or six years ago. The work was originally focused on providing medical care to a town on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua. John is a pathologist, and he has been instrumental in writing grants and training Nicaraguan doctors to prepare and read slides in an effort to catch some of the rampant cases of cervical cancer early enough to provide treatment.

In the States, slides are prepared with the aid of a $30,000.00 tissue processor. The machine is massive and the reagents are unavailable in Nicaragua. So the ever-resourceful John invented a way to process slides using a $69.00 microwave oven! He enlisted the aid of his brother-in-law, a retired computer chip engineer, and the two of them figured out a way to program the oven to cycle and hold the kind of temperatures required to "fix" the slides.

And, then some more!

John’s wife Mary is an artist. She was featured on one of the slides shown during the PIHOM presentation...her smiling face lit up the screen and the caption underneath read “I’m an there anything I can do to help?”

Dr. Bach admitted he groaned a bit inside when she showed up with her offer! And today she has grown into the heart and soul of the tiny grassroots group. Mary has painted colorful and uplifting murals on the hospital walls, she has taken over the newsletter, she writes grants, she teaches English classes. Yes, there was/is a lot she can do to help and her example was a great inspiration to the non-medical folks in the room. "Health" directly translates to "hope" in Arabic and medical care is only one leg of the stool.

This is a lovely example of people helping people. They are looking for volunteers, supplies, and cash. Go to this website for more information on how to help out.


jonmcrawford said... the processing through microwaves making it to the States?

Anonymous said...


Actually this process exists here but is not automated and therefore labor intensive and less productive. One can easily see, however, that expensive technology is not the only way to deliver medical care effectively. This is something that should be kept in mind for areas where $$ resources are in short supply. I have heard that many physicians who volunteer in such areas are intrigued by learning the skill of how to do more with less.

nonlocal MD