Jeff Shultz stands over his patient, a 36-year-old man. He’s trying to perform a complex heart procedure—a catheter ablation—to stop rapid, irregular heartbeats. He needs to insert a thin, flexible tube into a blood vessel and thread it through to the heart to save the man’s life. But everything is going wrong.
The catheter is shot. The delicate tube has been used far too many times, and the hospital he’s in doesn’t have new ones. It’s nearly impossible for Shultz to steer the dull catheter through his patient’s body. The outdated X-ray equipment he needs to perform the procedure is overheating. Shultz has maybe five minutes before the machine shuts down.
This wouldn’t happen at Methodist Hospital in the Twin Cities, where the heart rhythm specialist usually operates. But he’s in Peru, and he’s out of options. “I honestly didn’t know if I could do it,” Shultz says. “I just stopped and prayed. I decided to give it my all, and I had to leave the rest up to the Lord.” Shultz flipped the catheter around, it miraculously landed in the perfect spot, and his team finished the procedure just seconds before the equipment shut down. The patient was going to be just fine.
This tale is extraordinary, but many Twin Cities doctors find themselves in similar situations as they volunteer to treat patients who wouldn’t otherwise have access to high-quality care. Sometimes it’s at a free clinic in Minnesota. Other times, it’s on a medical mission trip to another country.
“Volunteering is one of the most gratifying things,” Shultz says. “You have day-to-day stresses as a doctor. But when you go to a place like Peru, the appreciation that is shown to you is just unbelievable. People are just so grateful for your help.”
When disaster strikes, doctors are in demand. The massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti was no exception. Pete Melchert, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota, was one of the hundreds of volunteers who flew to Port-au-Prince following the quake. He’s the medical director of Children’s Surgery International, a nonprofit group that provides medical and surgical treatment to kids in underprivileged areas. And he spent nearly a month volunteering in Haiti.
Melchert worked in an orphanage that had been converted into a makeshift hospital. But most patients chose to stay outside for fear of the building collapsing. The team was short of supplies and equipment, and medical emergencies were constant. “I had a woman come to me with pregnancy-associated heart failure,” Melchert says. “We had almost zero capacity to help manage her, but we did. We helped this woman—who in any other situation would be in a cardiac intensive care unit—outdoors without any form of monitoring or diagnostics.”
Cardiology is not Melchert’s specialty, but he went into action to save the woman’s life. He hung the woman’s IV drip bag on a nail on a brick wall. Then he called one of his colleagues at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for a cardiology consult. “We were able to develop a plan, we treated her, and she survived,” Melchert says.
When Melchert returned to the United States, there was still a need for doctors in Haiti. So he called in reinforcements from Minnesota. One of those doctors was Abraham Jacob, a pediatrician who works at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital. Jacob’s eight-day experience in Haiti was just as dramatic as Melchert’s.
“There was a pregnant woman who came pounding on the door at 2 am,” Jacob says. “I hadn’t delivered a baby since medical school, so I had to wake up and remember desperately how to do it.” Jacob threw a mattress on the ground, went to work, and delivered the baby 30 minutes later. “I had to help out and do what was needed. It was an unforgettable experience,” Jacob says.
“When you hear about such a dramatic instance of people in higher need, every physician wants to help out,” Jacob says. “I was more than happy to go [to Haiti], and it felt more like my privilege than anything else.”
Melchert believes that volunteering makes him a better physician. “When you invest the time and effort to serve overseas, you gain so much perspective on the human condition and the practice of medicine,” he says. “You’re improving the quality of your practice, and you’re improving care on both continents.”