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Mission trip illustrates power of women

December 16, 2008

In the past few years, ASU creative writing faculty member Melissa Pritchard has written magazine and journal articles on the sex trafficking of women and children in Asia, poetry projects in the brothel districts of Calcutta, and the journey of the Lost Boys of Sudan from Africa to Arizona.

So when she was invited to accompany the first all-female team of plastic surgeons, nurses and volunteers on a medical mission to Cuenca, Ecuador, sponsored by Women for World Health (W4WH), she didn't hesitate.

Yet, on this trip, which took place in November, Pritchard witnessed something new, something that resonated deeply within her: the power of women serving together.

“Of course I have met many individual women, but these were 16 women from around the United States, coming together for 10 days in answer to, and because of, that ‘yes’ to serve. It was a profound experience,” Pritchard said.

“I'm fascinated by this 'yes' – it's a desire to live bigger than yourself. Once you do that, you can't turn back."

The trip to Ecuador, which focused primarily on helping and healing children with cleft lips and palates, has nudged Pritchard into saying that "yes" for herself.

She is making tentative plans for another trip – this time to a possible danger zone -- to see how women are giving of themselves, and without doubt there will be more such journeys.

"I want to do it while I'm healthy and relatively young," said Pritchard, who is single. "I've been accused of having a Mother Teresa complex."

On the trip to Ecuador, Pritchard found herself pitching in to assist and observing during the surgeries, in between making notes for future articles.

"The doctors did 55 surgeries in 4-1/2 days and saw 69 patients," she said. "When I arrived in Cuenca, I didn’t understand the cosmetic aspect of cleft lips and palates. The children have trouble speaking and eating, and they are sometimes ostracized socially.”

The base for the trip was El Hospital Militar de Cuenca, which was filled with older, outdated equipment.

The mission's two anesthesiologists, both of whom are still in the Navy, had occasional problems with their equipment breaking down, and Pritchard watched them improvise to keep it running.

As she watched the two plastic surgeons sew the children's new faces together after the operations, she thought about how women throughout the ages created beauty with their needlework and embroidery.

“I saw how they were cutting and ‘sewing’ and suturing flesh with such delicate, precise, fine motor skills...these two women who chose surgical specialties long dominated by their female ancestors had probably sewn clothing, stitched tapestries, embroidered samplers with much the same skill, yet would never have dreamed of healing and saving lives as these women were now doing.”

Pritchard also watched the way the women on the mission team interacted with each other. "The spiritual dimension of the trip was quite strong. All the women talked about the spirit of service; about children they had worked with who had never smiled before their successful surgeries. The team members were all different sorts, but they all shared a zeal to serve."

Two women on the team were even new mothers who had made accommodations to their breast-feeding schedule to go to Ecuador.

"I listened to their stories and watched how hard they worked," Pritchard said. "They were invariably kind to one another, even though they were often very tired."

A quirk of fate brought Pritchard the opportunity to go to Ecuador with the mission team.

She and the co-founder of W4WH, anthropologist Denise Cucurny, have a mutual friend who lives in Arizona.

"I had called my friend, who it turned out was taking a nap. Denise answered the phone and we talked for a long time and she told me about Women for World Health and invited me along."

Women for World Health was founded in 2006 by Dr. Amy Wandel, a plastic surgeon and retired Navy officer, and Cucurny, who for eight years was director of operations for Plasticos Foundation, a volunteer group of plastic and reconstructive surgeons who travel to developing nations performing free surgeries on children with birth defects or other traumatic injuries. In 2009, W4WH will go to Guatemala and Laos to focus on internal medicine, pediatrics, ob-gyn, dentistry, ophthalmology and ear/nose/throat.

W4WH is, perhaps, an organization of its time. Today’s women, more than any other time in history, have the time, freedom and ability to seek fulfillment by helping others. "We have worked hard to achieve liberation,” Pritchard said. "Women can increasingly respond, and with courage, to the call to say yes, to use their skills to serve others in need.”

Now, as the W4WH Web site says, its women team members volunteer to serve for one simple reason:

"It is time to give back."