| By Fred Afflerbach | Correspondent

Central Texans serve the sick in Belize

The small nation of Belize is known as a Caribbean playground for tourists from across the globe. Cruise ships regularly deliver throngs of vacationers who explore Mayan ruins, snorkel, sail and kayak in crystal-clear waters. But last June, about 28 volunteers, 15 from the Diocese of Austin, visited Belize with none of that in mind.

Father Jim Chamberlain, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Cameron, and two parishioners of St. William Parish in Round Rock — Tino Hernandez and Eduardo Santana — led this group of intrepid healthcare professionals from the United States, Mexico and Canada on a medical mission of mercy.

Altogether, they spent eight sweltering days and seven nights living up to Christ’s exhortation that, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40)

The volunteers worked in two separate makeshift clinics with no air conditioning in 100-plus degree heat. They treated about 5,600 people, including many children.

Dentists extracted abscessed teeth. Pharmacists filled prescriptions. Optometrists screened patients and handed out more than 1,500 pairs of prescription glasses, mostly for youngsters. Chiropractors adjusted spines. And doctors, nurses and specialists checked patients’ blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels for signs of diabetes. One man injured in a work-related accident had been waiting six years to see a “real” doctor.

They did all of this for no charge.

“Technically, the country has free medical care for all. So these clinics were already there, but they were mostly empty because the government doesn’t have enough money to fund supplies,” Father Chamberlain said. “Since they can’t provide funding for the clinics, the nurses can’t work and doctors go to other countries or along the coast where the wealthier people live. Most of the public, the poor people, just don’t have access to medical care.”

The annual trip is possible through the auspices of St. Francis Medical Mission Inc., based in Cedar Park. The nonprofit has been sponsoring these missions to Central and South America since the 1980s. Tino Hernandez, the mission’s director, has been organizing these expeditions for about 30 years.

“It’s a lot of work. Getting up early. Staying up late. Working all day,” Hernandez said. “Belize was extremely hot. And they don’t have any AC. But it was all worth it. It was just a few days for us to suffer. Those folks have to go through it every day of their lives.”

On a typical morning, after a 90-minute bus ride from their dormitory, they arrived at the clinic with about 50 people already waiting in line. Throughout the day, the men, women and children waited hours to receive treatment.

Father Chamberlain, who celebrated daily Mass and served as the group chaplain, led singalongs at the clinics. He was impressed and heartened by the children’s resilience.

“I took my ukulele, so when they were in line waiting in the heat, I played some music and got the kids to singing,” Father Chamberlain said. “And sometimes, the adults would sing. That was fun. The kids were just so carefree.”

Each day, the group remained in the clinic until everyone in line was cared for.

“I was impressed with their generosity,” Father Chamberlain said of the volunteers, “giving their whole week to do pro-bono work in a hot, poor country. They were so giving.”

Eduardo Santana, co-organizer of the medical mission, worked in a Round Rock hospital emergency room for 13 years. For more than a decade, these medical missions have taken him to Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Puerto Rico. Reluctant to go at first, he was doggedly recruited by Hernandez. Finally, he gave in.

“I joined them thinking it’s going to be a one-time deal. I’m not going to like it. It’s not for me. But it didn’t happen that way,” Santana said. “I think I encountered Jesus more and more, very much, very close, on that mission. Ever since then, I say this is my calling. This is why I became a nurse. For me it’s a true calling to be able to serve and share our talents with those in need.”

St. Francis Medical Missions is always looking for volunteers, and one need not be a medical professional to get involved. Air fare is paid by the volunteers, but lodging and meals are provided by St. Francis Medical Missions.

For more information about St. Francis Medical Missions visit www.stfrancismedicalmission.org or e-mail tinomission@gmail.com.

Fred Afflerbach is a freelance writer living in Cedar Park. He is a 26-year member of the Knights of Columbus Council at St. Margaret Mary Parish. His work has been published in several daily Texas newspapers and he has published two novels.

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