These days, the 500 volunteers with the New Orleans Medical Mission Services make big impacts in Central American countries every time they visit.
Earlier this year in Nicaragua, for example, doctors completed 45 surgeries, conducted dozens of post-operative therapies and saw more than 1,600 people in a makeshift eye clinic, serving many who had gone their whole lives needing glasses until then.
Although highly successful now, the effort got off to a humble start, according to co-founder and CEO Frederick Mikill. It all began 15 years ago with a nasty sinus infection of Mikill’s.
“I said, ‘I need to see you quick,’ ” said Mikill, talking about his friend of 40 years, a doctor named Daniel Jacob. “And he said, ‘Well, I need to see you, too.’ ”
Mikill, who had just retired from a corporate job, had connections with shipping services. Jacob, it turned out, needed help getting surgical supplies to El Salvador within two weeks, without spending a lot of money.
By the end of that doctor’s visit, the two friends hadn’t just figured out how to get Jacob’s supplies out of the country. They had made plans to start their own nonprofit medical missions company, and within a year, they were using volunteers’ garages and trunks of cars to store medical supplies waiting for shipment to countries where people needed them most.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the service now sends hundreds of doctors every year to do medical procedures in Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Roatan, an island off Honduras.
On Friday, the Medical Mission Services will hold its annual gala, raising money to fund future missions. The Mission Possible Gala will be held at Generations Hall and will feature food, entertainment and live auctions.
“It’s grown tremendously,” Mikill said about the annual gala, noting that recent fundraisers have netted between $125,000 and $130,000 after bringing in just $25,000 the first year.
The money is needed, he added, for missions big and small, both around the world and in Louisiana.
Recently, for example, the nonprofit sent about $100,000 in medical supplies to the LSU Medical School, where resident doctors are trained. The New Orleans Mission also received supplies to help the homeless, including 70 beds with mattresses.
The organization also frequently donates to the Louisiana SPCA and the Audubon Zoo, to help relieve animal suffering through the use of IV fluids, antiseptics, syringes and anesthesia supplies.
But the majority of its work is done overseas, where each mission costs between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on where it is and how much accommodations for the volunteers cost. Airline tickets run up to $900, and it can cost about $6,000 to ship medical supplies overseas.
The money goes to places Jacob, an ear, nose and throat specialist, has long traveled during his career.
“There’s just an abysmal need,” he said. “We can go down to places and offer a ray of hope to some people who wouldn’t get it at all or wouldn’t get it for years and years.”
In many poor countries, health systems are unresponsive at best and “grossly inadequate” at worst, Jacob said. Someone with a hernia, for example, may live with it for decades, unable to work, even though repairing it is a relatively simple procedure.
In March, he said, he brought an orthopedist who did 31 knee replacements. The procedure is so rare in the part of Nicaragua they visited that several local doctors came to watch because it was only the first or second time they had seen such an operation.
“At the end of it, 31 people can now walk that could barely walk before,” Jacob said. “As for me, I do neck stuff. I deal with people whose thyroid glands obstruct swallowing and cause difficulty breathing. That’s just their life, just how it works.”
Until the visitors help, of course.
Pamela Mikill, the CEO’s wife and a fellow volunteer, can attest to the success of the missions — not just for the patients, but for the hundreds of volunteers who travel to make a difference.
Young people, especially, seem to have profound experiences, she said, and many come back time and again for return missions. In fact, there’s a waiting list for the next mission, which is again set for Nicaragua.
“The gratitude of people down there is unbelievable,” she said. “Somehow, it just touches you. You do not come back from a mission untouched.”
The Mission Possible Gala will be held Friday at Generations Hall, 310 Andrew Higgins Drive.
The patron party will start at 6:30 p.m. and the gala at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be bought by calling (504) 392-1934 or by visiting the New Orleans Medical Mission Services website.