Terry DeVine column: F-M medical mission gives hope to Ecuadoreans

Recovery room RN Corinn Gromatka of Fargo said she and her colleagues don't worry much about the vacation time and airline expenses they have to come up with each year to fly to Ecuador.

Recovery room RN Corinn Gromatka of Fargo said she and her colleagues don't worry much about the vacation time and airline expenses they have to come up with each year to fly to Ecuador.

Gromatka said they're on a mission of mercy, and isn't helping others, after all, one of the reasons they entered the nursing profession?

Gromatka thinks so and that's why she recently traveled to Quito, Ecuador, for the third straight year with Dr. Ray Ortega, MeritCare Hospital's plastic surgeon, and the rest of the medical team.

"It's something that just gets ahold of you when you see how appreciative these people are for what you do for them," she said. "I get so much more back than I could ever possibly give. It's an uplifting experience."

RN Dena Vanyo of Fargo, who worked with Gromatka in recovery, couldn't agree more.


"They (Ecuadoreans) are such warm people and you're so touched by their gratitude," said Vanyo. "It also gives you perspective and a greater appreciation for what we have here."

It was Vanyo's first mission. It was the fourth for Ortega and RN Joan Trittin of Wahpeton, N.D., who has worked side by side with Ortega from the very beginning.

They were also joined this year by RNs Melissa Fingerson of Wahpeton, her second mission; Pam Matson of Fargo, her third; Bev Wirth of Fargo, her first, and Melody Larson of Fargo, her second.

Fingerson's son, Patrick, a high school sophomore, also accompanied the team. Gromatka said he was a great help in recovery and in distributing medicines to patients.

The 10-day medical mission, virtually a nonstop whirlwind of surgeries aimed at helping as many people as possible in a limited time, was labeled "Strange Destinies and Minor Miracles" by Ortega in a talk he gave to medical personnel in Ecuador before the F-M group returned home.

Ortega, a West Point and Cornell Medical School graduate, saw 70 patients in eight days and performed surgery on 40 people -- some multiple procedures. The majority of the surgeries were to correct cleft palates and cleft lips.

Team members did get a little free time and Ecuador's first lady, Jimenia Vargas, took them on a tour of the Presidential Palace. Her husband, President Lucio Gutierrez, also greeted them.

Ortega said next year the team also will spend some time on Ecuador's Galapagos Islands doing surgery. He said there are only two physicians to serve 60,000 people on four islands.


A chance meeting with an Ecuadorean Air Force officer who coordinates all medical missions to the Galapagos Islands, resulted in his promise to Ortega to fly the team on government aircraft from Quito.

As a result, said Ortega, the mission can be expanded next year because "we have more nurses who want to go." He said they'll have five operating rooms next year, three in south Quito and two more in the Galapagos.

"We started with one nurse and had seven with us this year," said Ortega. "That's a tribute to Joan (Trittin) and Deanna Micheli."

Micheli has been on previous missions and heads Project HERO (Healthcare Equipment Recycling Organization) that provides most of the medical and surgical supplies the team takes to Ecuador.

Dr. Jeff Haasbeek, MeritCare pediatric orthopedic surgeon who accompanied the mission last year, went down earlier this year because of a scheduling conflict.

Ortega said his team would like to add an ophthalmologist, anesthesiologist, and more nurses.

After all, said Ortega, "A surgeon without a nurse is just a waste of oxygen."

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or

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