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Del Mar teen aids medical procedures in underprivileged city

A Del Mar teen is gearing up for a future in the medical field and helping transform lives by volunteering in an underprivileged country.

Reese Ger-Herscott, 16, a junior at Francis Parker School has visited El Fuerte in Sinaloa, Mexico three times over the last year to help her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon, with procedures on their limbs. They have gone on the trips as volunteers of LIGA International, Flying Doctors of Mercy, which provides medical and dental care for the people of El Fuerte.

Following her most recent trip to the Mexican city, which took place at the end of October, Reese shared why the organization is important to her and details about the type of work she has been doing for them.

This Q&A has been edited for length.

Q: What kind of volunteer work have you done for LIGA?

A: LIGA goes down to Mexico once a month to provide medical care for anyone and everyone who shows up and is in need. I've volunteered with them on three trips, and I'm going with them again in January. Basically, everyone just does anything and everything that they can do to help. I'm in high school Spanish, so I do my best to help translate. I assist in surgeries, just kind of doing whatever people ask me to do like cleaning stuff up or talking to patients or copying papers. We've also been working on ways to digitize their medical records. It's definitely very different from health care in the United States. We figure out what services we can improve and how we can overcome those challenges.

Q: How does their health care system differ from ours in the U.S.?

A: A lot of the people that we see are really poor and don't have access to great medical care. They'll come to us with issues. We've had patients who have broken their arms a year or two in advance and were like, “What can you do?” At that point, there's not a lot you can do. People come to you with just more serious issues, and our resources are very limited. A lot of people need total knee replacements, and we don't do them down there because we're only there for the weekend and you really need to monitor those kinds of patients for a lot longer than that. What we do instead is a lot of cortisone injections. It's a lot of doing anything and everything you can to make things better. It's not always an ideal circumstance.

Q: How did you learn about LIGA and what made you want to start volunteering with them?

A: My mom worked with LIGA about 10 years ago. I then went up with my grandfather, and we both just had a fun time. It's really a rewarding experience to be able to go and help people, especially for high schoolers. There aren't a lot of volunteer opportunities that are open to me where I'm really able to affect change. When I volunteer, it's a really rewarding experience because you know what you're doing is really meaningful.

Q: What would you say to other teens to encourage them to also do this kind of volunteer work?

A: LIGA's really looking for healthcare professionals — trained nurses, anesthesiologists, doctors, surgeons — as well as translators. What I'd say to other high schoolers is just to get more involved in their communities. If people are really interested in LIGA, they're always looking for medical professionals and donations of supplies.

Q: How did your last trip go?

A: We did a lot of [operations for] syndactyly, which is when people's fingers are stuck together. When they're in the womb, their fingers don't separate. What my grandfather does as an orthopedic hand surgeon is he goes in and cuts them apart so that instead of using their hands as mittens they can use them as normal hands. In El Fuerte, a lot of the jobs are manual labor jobs, so having full use of your hands is incredibly important. I assisted my grandpa in just kind of whatever he asked me to do to help with that. I think we did about four or five of those surgeries this past trip.

Q: What does it mean to you to be involved in these life-changing operations?

A: Those surgeries can happen several times depending on how many fingers are impacted. Now that it's my third trip, we're seeing some of our patients for revisions. We get to see them grown up and using their hands. That's really cool to be able to see the change that you're making.

Q: Why is this cause and this kind of work important to you?

A: I'm really interested in pursuing health care. Being able to see what that could entail for me is really an interesting thing. Giving someone two working hands is something that ends up helping them for a lifetime. We're providing people with the opportunity to provide for themselves, which is a meaningful and effective solution.

Q: Do you have any favorite stories of being involved?

A: There is a sign on the wall of the OR that reads 'just do the best you can with what you have.' The rewarding part of being a volunteer with LIGA isn't feel-good stories; it's the difficult cases where anything we can offer is an improvement. The acuity of the patients we see is a reality check for Americans who have access to healthcare, especially those living in areas like Del Mar. As a high school student, I go on these mission trips not only to learn about the field of healthcare, but to sincerely make a difference. The surgeries we do last a lifetime for our patients. Knowing this is what makes these trips so special for me.

Q: How can people help with LIGA or donate?

A: LIGA has a website, www.ligainternational.org, and they're always looking for supplies. We have small airplanes so we can take lots of stuff down. We're also looking for anesthesiologists, surgeons, nurses, translators or anybody who's willing to help and has something to contribute.

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