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Mission trips provide sorely needed medical care in Belize

Leigh Ann Laube • May 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

On April 26, 2008, Dr. Joe Smiddy arrived at Tri-Cities Regional Airport to board a plane bound for Belize. Smiddy was part of a group based out of Darthula Baptist Church in Hiltons, Va., traveling to Body & Soul Ministries’ Uriah Compound for a week of medical missions. “I showed up at Tri-Cities Airport carrying a little crutch,” Smiddy said. “I said we’d find someone who would need it. I told [wife] Liz that the crutch had an owner. I just needed to find it.”

Belize, located on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America, is known to vacationers for its lush jungles, deep sea fishing, swimming, snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean sea, and for its Mayan ruins.

The Uriah Compound is situated on less than an acre of land in Roaring Creek, a small village northwest of the capital city of Belmopan. The dirt roads are rutted and cracked during the dry season. Homes are made of cinderblock and often house extended families. While there are cars in nearby Belmopan, village residents generally walk, ride bicycles or use public transportation, if they can afford it. English is the official language and is widely spoken, as is Spanish.

For a week, the Darthula group ministered not only to the medical needs of the locals, but also to the spiritual needs of those who made their way to the compound.

That wasn’t the first trip to Belize by folks from this area, but it was the first medical trip. Darthula Pastor Layton Bentley first visited the country in June 2006, after learning about Body & Soul Ministries. Body & Soul was founded in 1995 by missionaries Ralph and Penny Digman of Indiana after they made their first mission trip to Belize.

“We met with the Digmans, then scheduled a team from Hiltons churches for June 2006,” Bentley said. “That was our first trip. We built a bathhouse. We went back in 2007 and built a dining hall. We went back in 2008 to build a cabana.” Today, the compound also houses Faith Baptist Church, a learning center and a clinic.

Five days after landing in Belize last spring, Smiddy, a Kingsport pulmonologist and the director of the Regional Center for Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine at Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center, found the owner of the crutch.

Jaylee Corado was in septic shock when she arrived at the clinic. “Her mom carried her approximately seven miles to the clinic. Her temperature was 103.6. Her heart rate was 156,” Smiddy said.

Liz Smiddy started an IV, and Jaylee was given saline and antibiotics. After she was stabilized, Smiddy examined a wound on her ankle and discovered the fragment of a stick, which had caused infection to spread throughout her body. Hours after Smiddy removed the fragment, Jaylee regained color in her face and became more alert and responsive. She was kept overnight at the clinic.

“She made a dramatic turnaround,” Smiddy said. “I sent her home with the little crutch.”

During that week, while the medical staff treated patients with acute appendicitis, diabetes, lesions, ear infections, acute asthma, dental cavities, toothaches, heart defects and parasitic infections, the construction team built a new cabana to house visiting teams.

The evangelism team distributed rice, beans and other supplies to residents in nearby villages, entertained local children with puppet shows and visited students sponsored through Body & Soul’s school sponsorship program. The entire team participated in worship services at three area churches. All total, the medical staff served more than 350 patients, many of them children, in the clinic.

A year later, in March 2009, Smiddy — who now serves as medical director for Body & Soul — returned to the Uriah Compound, this time with a team of nursing students from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise as well as a group of students from the college’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries.

In what was the first wave of a two-wave trip, Smiddy and the nursing students treated patients as well as evaluated those with special pediatric needs who would be seen by a pediatric team the following month. In the early part of that week, they set up a clinic inside nearby Lagoon Road Baptist Church to provide medical service to the people in the village in that area. At mid-week, they opened the Uriah clinic, and news began to spread that a medical team from the United States was there.

“The first day is light ... and there’s an element of distrust,” Smiddy said. “Each day of the week, the numbers just get bigger and bigger. A patient will go and get the rest of their family and bring them back.”

By the end of the week, they had treated 427 people, 80 percent of whom were children. “It was a great opportunity for [the nursing students]. We were able to incorporate all the students,” Smiddy said. “Each worked on their own level very effectively.”

In April 2009, Smiddy and his wife took the pediatric team to the Uriah Compound clinic. Along for the ride were Kingsport pediatrician Joseph Ley, Smiddy’s daughter Dr. Sara Smiddy Youssef and her husband Dr. Shareif Youssef. Though their medicines and supplies were temporarily held by customs agents, the clinic was stocked enough to begin treating patients. Two days later, the supplies were released and transported to the clinic.

“The pharmacy is a surprisingly complete pharmacy,” Smiddy said. “We’re constantly collecting supplies for future trips.”

It was Ley’s first mission trip, and he admitted to some nervousness. “I had some apprehensions of what I might need to do with very limited resources, especially for diagnosis — no X-ray, few tests and the possibility of seeing diseases such as malaria or other tropical diseases for which I had little knowledge and no experience in managing,” he said. “What I found was people who were generally joyful despite the little they had, very thankful for our help and very patient with putting up with hardships to see us and listen to our plans for them. I was amazed that some had not seen a doctor in years or ever. I was surprised that most appeared generally healthy because they all walk a lot and eat a simple diet.”

Ley said he learned to “go with your gut, what you’ve experienced, what you know.”

Most of the pediatric problems he treated were typical childhood issues worsened by lack of available care. “Many children had impetigo from infected bug bites, with one child severely affected. Many children had asthma, but had only received treatment at the hospital when they were having trouble breathing with no home treatment available. I also saw many children who need dental care. We were able to provide care for acute problems, and we were able to help with education about how to manage things themselves whenever possible,” Ley said.

Among the other problems treated that week were elevated carbon monoxide levels, diabetes, scabies, possible staph infection, warts, cough and fever, Newcastle disease, Bell’s palsy, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and dental issues. The team believes the carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by the indoor cooking done over open fires.

There is an electronic medical record for every patient treated at the clinic. Internet access at the compound has provided a way for Smiddy — and other visiting teams — to confer with doctors around the United States to treat particularly difficult cases. He regularly gets e-mails from other doctors visiting the clinic about those patients.

Because of transportation issues, the sickest of Belizian patients are often left at home. Many who do get to the clinic are dehydrated and hungry when they get there. The indoor waiting room fills up quickly, and the line of patients will extend outside into the hot sun. “We’re trying to help with transportation issues,” Smiddy said.

Plans are also in the works to build a covered outdoor waiting area.

“The clinic waiting room will be packed, then people are outside waiting to get into the waiting room. Whole families will wait outside for hours in the hot sun ... and you never hear them complain,” Bentley said.

A workday at the clinic is from sun up to sundown, and medical teams are often dispatched into the local villages to provide treatment, said Frank Waldo, a Kingsport resident who serves as president of the board for Body & Soul.

“The intent is to have at least one medical team a month at the clinic so people can come back for follow-up,” Waldo said. “It’s a huge undertaking on Dr. Joe’s [Smiddy] part trying to coordinate between teams.”

Although there is a hospital in nearby Belmopan, villagers often can’t get there and, if they can get there, can’t afford the treatment.

“They have confidence in Body & Soul’s clinic. It’s a free clinic. They know they’ll get good care, and that makes a lot of difference,” Waldo said.

Another two-wave team will return to Belize in the spring of 2010. The first wave will again feature U.Va.-Wise nursing students along with members of U.Va.-Wise’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries. They will open the clinic, evaluate pediatric patients and spread the word that the pediatricians will be arriving, hopefully the next week.

“I am going back because I saw that we were actually being part of a system of care and could make a difference in the long-term health of the children,” Ley said. “The Body & Soul ministry has an ongoing presence and a series of teams who are helping the people of Belize care for themselves with some medical care, spiritual care and a whole lot of love from us.”

Between now and then, Smiddy said, the group will ship needed equipment, recruit volunteer medical personnel and team leaders, and establish treatment protocols.

“It’s helpful to understand that everyone in this process is touched and changed and brings something back to Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia,” Smiddy said. “The burned-out doctor needs to hit my e-mail address. It’s about evangelical work. It’s about reaching out. It’s about using medical skills to spread the word of God.”

“We try to reach people for Christ,” Waldo added. “We want to teach people about Christ. Body & Soul ministers through medicine, food and Jesus. The ministry’s thrust is the medical, but also we minister to the people. And we’ll continue to do construction projects in the villages.”

On Saturday, a Clinch Valley Baptist Association mission team left for Belize to build a Spanish church, the Uriah Baptist Church, in Roaring Creek.

Smiddy, who has done international missions, has a special place in his heart for Belize.

“I’ve done missions in America, India and Peru and have come within a few feet of God. In Belize, God has his hand on my shoulder,” he said.

“As a pastor and a minister, I had never been on a mission trip until 2006 when we got involved with this ministry,” Bentley said. “We’ve always been mission-minded, but I really didn’t know what missions was until I went into the field. God has truly blessed my ministry since I became hands-on in the mission field.”

Any medical personnel interested in the 2010 trips can e-mail Smiddy at josephfsmd@aol.com. Church groups interested in having Bentley speak can call him at 361-1008. Donations to Body & Soul can be mailed to Body & Soul Missions, c/o Frank Waldo, 245 Henry Road, Piney Flats, Tenn., 37686.

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