2008/11/21:Through their Madison nonprofit, Lisa Fernandez and Mary Dowling are bringing medical advances to Third World countries - Lisa Fernandez

Dynamic Duo: Through their Madison nonprofit, Lisa Fernandez and Mary Dowling are bringing medical advances to Third World countries
on Friday 11/21/2008

The Isthmus

Lisa Fernandez does not have to imagine how her efforts have improved the lives of people in Central America. She's seen it with her own eyes.

"When I walk the streets of Matagalpa, Nicaragua," she says, "I see people sitting in their doorways in wheelchairs that they got from the Wisconsin Nicaragua Wheelchair Project, talking to neighbors and watching the evening street life."

Fernandez, a Madison nurse, travels to Nicaragua each fall to assess the needs of those who have gotten wheelchairs through the program, which she started in 1999. Since then, it has helped provide mobility to more than 1,000 disabled kids and adults.

The Wisconsin/Nicaragua Wheelchair Project is part of a larger Madison-based organization, Sharing Resources Worldwide, run by Fernandez and Mary Dowling, another Madison nurse. (Fernandez has been an inpatient orthopedic surgical nurse at UW Hospital for 15 years. Dowling has been a neonatal nurse at St. Mary's Hospital since 1977.)

Fernandez was inspired to action by a visit to Nicaragua after it was hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

"It was clear to me that I could do something, however small, to make a difference," she recalls. "I have always felt an acute connection to others. I don't feel distanced from another's suffering." And so she started collecting, repairing and shipping wheelchairs to Nicaragua, where the need was "desperate."

Dowling, for her part, began working with other nonprofit organizations, arranging shipments of medical supplies to other countries in 1987. She's also provided foster care for children who came to the U.S. for medical treatment. That's how she met Fernandez, who provided medical care to one of Dowling's foster kids.

"After talking, we discovered that we had a lot in common and decided to join forces," says Fernandez.

The two launched Sharing Resources Worldwide in 2002. It blends the work they had been doing individually: distributing properly fitted wheelchairs and other mobility devices to handicapped children in Nicaragua, making medical missions to developing countries and distributing surplus medical supplies that might otherwise end up in Wisconsin landfills to developing countries.

Fernandez and Dowling use their vacation or unpaid time for the medical missions and wheelchair project. Neither takes a salary from the group, whose mission is to "improve the health and quality of life of the recipients and to empower the recipients to live with increased dignity, independence and hope."

'This could be my child'

Lisa Fernandez, 54, is originally from Burlington, Vt. (She says it's a lot like Madison, but with mountains.) She attended college in Boston.

"I picked up a couple of degrees," she says, "but never found my true calling until I discovered nursing." She came to Madison with her former husband and two children in 1989.

"The suffering and pain of the mothers I have seen with sick and disabled children is very real to me," she says. "This could be my child. Their pain is no different than mine would be. My son Kailen, who is now 23, suffered greatly from severe asthma and allergies from the time he was an infant. He spent much of his first three years in emergency rooms and hospital beds.

"It really gives me pause to realize that if he had been born in a developing country, he would never have survived his first months of life. Just by the chance that we live in the U.S., he was able to live and grow into the strong and productive man he is now. How would it have felt to hold him in my arms while he struggled to breathe and then died, as would likely have happened if he had been born poor in the developing world?"

Mary Dowling, 60, is a native of Rewey, Wis., who now resides in Mount Horeb. A divorced mom with five kids, ranging in age from 15 to 37, Dowling and her former husband fostered eight children from other countries, many of them infants who came right from the hospital to the Dowling home. Many had medical problems.

"I felt we could help them because of my medical background," say Dowling. "We helped them get started, provided a good home until they could be adopted or returned to their families.

"As one social worker told me: If they have the love and care of a family from the beginning, they will transfer that love and affection wherever they go from there on and have a good life. So we helped them have that good start. We did adopt three of them, but that just happened!"

Dowling's foster children came to Madison for medical care without their families, "and we were their family until they were healed and ready to go home. When I traveled to Panama and Nicaragua to [pick up or return children], I saw the conditions there and the need."

"We as Americans have so much and take it for granted — clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, medicine, safe homes, schools, paper and pencils. Many worldwide do not have those basics. There is no safety net for those children or families."

Dowling's second daughter, Rebecca, has been disabled since birth, so as a mother she knows what it's like. She appreciates how much harder it can be in Third World countries.

"If we can provide medical care needed to make that child's life easier or provide a piece of equipment such as a walker or wheelchair that makes him mobile and part of the community," she says, "we have helped his family, community, school, church and country by helping make that child an active contributor to his community and country."

The eyes have it

When hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin are renovated or close, the old equipment — hospital beds, operating room tables, gurneys, IV stands, anesthesia machines and operating room lights — often gets discarded.

Sometimes a hospital changes the brand of latex glove it uses and gets rid of all its unused gloves. Sometimes a pallet of supplies is damaged during shipment to the clinic and it's too costly to send it back. Because regulations in the U.S. are stricter than in developing countries, the surplus is unable to be used here.

Since partnering on Sharing Resources Worldwide, Dowling and Fernandez have saved more than 1,600 tons of medical surplus from landfills by networking with Wisconsin hospitals and clinics. (WNPJ helped get a shipment of wheelchairs to Nicaragua – partnering with Returned Peace Corps and Sharing Resources Worldwide a few years ago.)

"We want to know about new projects," says Dowling. "If a new hospital is being built or renovated, there are opportunities for us to obtain much needed medical surplus."

On medical missions, Dowling serves as the recovery-room nurse. She's accompanied by 10 to 15 doctors and nurses, who donate their time and pay their own way to travel to the mission locations.

"We have volunteer medical professionals from Madison, Beaver Dam, La Crosse, Prairie du Chien and many other Wisconsin hospitals," says Dowling. "I like to have new people in each group, as it's good to have new eyes. You have to have people who can think outside the box and do things differently. Sometimes you have to improvise."

One function of Sharing Resources Worldwide is conducting eye exams, performing eye surgeries and distributing eyeglasses. Since its inception in 2002, the group has screened about 4,500 children and adults for eye problems and distributed glasses to more than 3,500 people. Hundreds of children have had surgery to correct crossed eyes and other disorders. The group works with the Lions Foundation, whose members collect and refurbish eyeglasses.

In September, Dowling returned from her 34th medical mission, to Siguatepeque, in the central mountains of Honduras. Its purpose was to replace diseased or damaged eyes with prosthetics.

"It's a new procedure," says Dowling. "The eyes are very realistic-looking, and they move."

Nineteen people received new eyes, including a 16-year-old girl who had been shot in the face. "The bullet came out through her eye socket, and she couldn't stand to look at herself in the mirror because her face was horrific," says Dowling. After the surgery, the girl was pleased with her new appearance.

Drive and grace

Dowling and Fernandez have developed working relationships with organizations in the countries they serve, like Familias Especiales, in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The group now hires Nicaraguans who are themselves disabled, training them to repair and refurbish donated wheelchairs.

"The disabled are helping each other," marvels Fernandez. "The worker whose legs don't work can use sign language to communicate to the worker whose ears don't work to help the child whose communications skills don't work, and on and on it goes. By sharing all their incredible abilities, the work gets done. And both the helpers and the helped are so much the better for it."

Matagalpa, population 485,000, is located in the north-central region of Nicaragua. According to the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, the per capita income of Nicaragua residents in 2007 was $1,023. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

On medical missions, the goal of Sharing Resources Worldwide is to help the children who need services most. In January, Dowling traveled with a team of medical professionals to Siguatepeque to conduct orthopedic surgeries to correct clubfeet and other orthopedic deformities.

The team screened 70 children and performed 30 surgeries at no cost to the families. The value of the services and goods provided was estimated at $276,247.

Typically, the doctors perform surgeries five or six days during a medical mission, working from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. To be acceptable for a medical mission, a given location must have such basic facilities as operating rooms, recovery rooms, emergency generator power back-up, and air conditioning.

Children treated though the program receive a brightly colored blanket and a matching stuffed toy prior to surgery to help comfort them. The Bonnet Prairie Church in Rio, Wis., has been providing these items for 10 years. One Madison-based volunteer, Ronald McDonald, made more than 100 toy-blanket sets last year. Says Dowling, "They provide such comfort to the children before and after the surgery."

On a mission trip to Guinea, Africa, several years ago, says Dowling, "the elders of the village we worked in told us at the end of a week of eye exams and distributing glasses to the people there: 'You could have sent us things, but you did not. You came here and lived with us, ate our food, left your families and comfortable homes to come here and help us help our own people. That means so much to us.'"

Things like that, says Dowling, keep her motivated.'

Alfredo Cerrato, president and CEO of Providence World Ministries in Siguatepeque, met Dowling five years ago through a Sharing Resources Worldwide board member.

"In order to accomplish mission work in Honduras you need to have long-term vision," says Cerrato. "Patience, purpose, perseverance, drive and grace are necessary elements in functional mission work; Mary exemplifies them all."

Cerrato, who is Honduran by birth, lived in the U.S. for 30 years. He went back to build an orphanage from the ground up. He notes that Sharing Resources Worldwide has performed more than 200 surgeries on children and outfitted an entire children's hospital.

"It is amazing to fathom what has been accomplished through Mary and her team," he says. "I do not know anyone else who can or ever will be able to do that with such effectiveness and efficiency in or outside the U.S."

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with an overwhelming 80% of the population living below the poverty line. Infections and parasitic diseases are rampant throughout the country, and effective healthcare is not readily available.

The facility that Cerrato built has two operating rooms; the entire building was outfitted by medical surplus collected by Sharing Resources Worldwide volunteers here in Madison.

Sorting it out

Working from a 16,000-square-foot warehouse on Madison's east side, volunteers sort through the donations. Wheelchairs and boxes of canes and walkers await shipment. Hospital bed linens, gowns and scrubs in plastic bags await shipment to hospitals where patients previously had to bring their own bed linens and gowns.

"Nothing is shipped unless we check it over and make sure that it works," says Dowling. But such decisions are tempered by the knowledge that even old equipment is better than none at all. As she puts it, "How do you quantify how many times an operating room table might save a life?"

Henry Bassett, 77, is a longtime volunteer with Sharing Resources Worldwide and, before that, Fernandez's wheelchair project.

"Mary and Lisa, who each have a nursing job, were doing everything required to promote, solicit funds, collect donations, sort, prepare loads and pack their containers by themselves," he says. "Imagine walking into a warehouse after your nursing shift, digging into tons of unsorted medical supplies and surplus laundry, sorting out items and packing box after box until you had 30 boxes full. That's enough for one pallet. Only 1,170 more boxes to go, and there would be enough for most of a container-load of 40 pallets. I don't know how they did it."

The work of sorting and boxing donations is now shared by crews of volunteers, including a group of nurses who come in weekly. Another group loads containers as needed and is available on call for special projects. "All are persons you would want hire but could never afford," says Bassett.

Currently, Sharing Resources has about 35 volunteers and an annual budget of $200,000, which includes no salaries. Fernandez and Dowling hope to expand the medical missions and wheelchair project to additional countries, as well as expand the types of surgeries performed. They hope to provide an opportunity and model for the responsible recycling of medical supplies and the shipping of these resources to places where they are desperately needed.

"We want to actively participate in the setting of standards for these activities in the growing network of like organizations," says Fernandez.

It's a lot of work, but also quite rewarding. Fernandez draws inspiration from an old adage: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."

Been there, done that
In six years, Sharing Resources Worldwide has:

    *      Sent 103 shipments of medical supplies to poor countries, with an estimated total value of $11.2 million.
    *      Saved 1,616 tons of medical surplus from ending up in Wisconsin landfills.
    *      Conducted 15 medical/surgical and eyeglass missions.
    *      Screened 4,484 children and adults for problems on eye missions.
    *      Dispensed 3,551 pairs of eyeglasses.
    *      Screened 1,008 children on medical missions.
    *      Surgically treated 555 children.
    *      Distributed more than 1,000 wheelchairs in Nicaragua.

How you can help

Sharing Resources Worldwide needs new and used wheelchairs and cash donations.
Website: sharingresourcesworldwide.org.
Mary Dowling: 608-445-8503; Lisa Fernandez: 608-445-8504.