Missions of Mercy

Her own illness didn't dissuade nurse Gisella Alvarez from aking her yearly trip top bring better medical care to Peru

Spirit of Sharing

December 28, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,sun reporter

This is the last in a series of weekly articles highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify the "Spirit of Sharing," The Sun's annual holiday campaign.

Mercy Medical Center nurse Gisella Alvarez was told last July that she had breast cancer. Her reaction was typically selfless.

"When I was diagnosed, my first concern was `Will I be able to do my mission work?' "

Answer: Yes.

Alvarez, 44, underwent a double mastectomy and, come October, used two weeks of vacation to go serve as a volunteer on a medical aide project in Peru - for the ninth consecutive year.

"I don't know how she touches so many people. It's a talent," says Vince Fitzgerald, a physician's assistant at Mercy who was a first-time volunteer on that trip. "She has a passion for doing this stuff."

The annual Peru mission brings First-World surgical skills and medical care to a remote area of the Andes Mountains. During their 14-day stay, 40 volunteer doctors, nurses and support crew set up shop inside a Spartan hospital that has outdated equipment, no blood bank and no telephones.

Yet they managed to perform 186 operations (everything from hernia repairs to skin grafts) and attend to 800 other patients.

"We get more out of it than what we give them," says Alvarez. "They think of you as gods. They have this incredible appreciation for anything you do. It's a very humbling experience."

Launched in 1989, the Peru program is run by Pennsylvania-based Global Health Ministry, a member of Catholic Health East, one of the country's largest nonprofit hospital networks.

The Sisters of Mercy, founder of Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, is one of the religious communities that make up GHM. In 1998, Alvarez responded to a general e-mail request seeking mission volunteers and was selected to participate.

In everyday life, she's a patient-care coordinator for the medical surgical unit at Mercy. That initial trip to Peru suddenly thrust her into an operating room that tries to function under combatlike conditions.

"Completely out of my comfort zone," acknowledges Alvarez. "I was nervous."

But she performed so coolly under pressure that the next year Alvarez was asked to be the mission's team leader. That has been her role ever since.

"She's basically running an OR [operating room] and a primary-care physicians' office in two weeks," says Kathryn Ries, an administrator at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a GHM volunteer. "She's an incredibly organized person."

Proof can usually be found in Alvarez's arms: the three-ring binder labeled "G's Brain" that she carries clutched to her chest like a jewel box. It contains surgical schedules, copies of volunteers' passports, emergency contacts, medical forms, lists of medical suppliers and more. NFL coaches have thinner playbooks.

Alvarez - who is single and lives in Pasadena - came to Baltimore in 1981 to live with two aunts. She graduated from the University of Maryland and immediately went to work at Mercy Medical Center.

But she grew up in the mountains of Colombia, never forgetting that life can be blisteringly hard and good health often a luxury. That's part of the attraction of taking a GHM "vacation"; that and the brothers-and-sisters-in-arms camaraderie of the medical teams.

As Alvarez says, "Prima donnas are not going to volunteer to do mission work."

Supervising the Peru mission is like having an unpaid part-time job. Right now, Alvarez is writing her 2006 post-trip reports. Next she'll hold a bake sale at Mercy to help fund the "side projects" she does on every mission. Last year she raised $3,057, most of which went toward buying school supplies and food for needy families.

March will be an off month because Alvarez is taking a week's vacation to travel to her native Colombia - on another medical-relief mission for another nonprofit. (That trip is less pressure, however: She'll be a nonsupervisory volunteer nurse.)

In April, the 2007 crop of Peru volunteers will meet outside Philadelphia for a weekend of team-building and preparation sessions. Shortly after that, Alvarez will start coordinating overtures to hospitals and drug companies, soliciting all the medications expected to be needed on next October's mission. Teams have to take their own supplies with them, from sutures to an anesthesia machine.

"We don't get one cent of corporate support," says Sister Mary Jo McGinley, executive director of GHM, noting that she relies on individual contributions, plus the $2.5 million of in-kind donations rounded up this year.

Alvarez does some procuring of her own. She started a "Global Outreach Donation Center" at Mercy, a fancy name for the 14th-floor closet where she stores unwanted medical supplies.

By law, a still-packaged catheter with a broken seal can't be used in a U.S. hospital. But why toss it away when other countries need them? Same goes for perfectly good towels, surgical blades or crutches all headed for a landfill.

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