La Porte Hospital doctor travels to Antigua to help people get health care
At La Porte Hospital, Dr. Neil Wangstrom delivers patient care with the aid of state-of-the-art technology and trained medical personnel.
But every February, Wangstrom, an ear, nose and throat specialist for more than 20 years, leaves his comfort zone to help those with limited access to doctors and medicine.
“You’ve got to be open about the whole situation,” the ENT-otolaryngologist said. “Someone with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) wouldn’t do well down there.”
Since 2010, Wangstrom has traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, with other doctors, nurses and specialists to provide much-needed medical services and surgeries to men, women and children who have little or no income. This mission work is through the Houston-based group Faith In Practice.
“The mission of Faith In Practice is to improve the physical, spiritual and economic conditions of the poor in Guatemala through short-term surgical, medical and dental mission trips and health-related educational programs,” according to the organization’s website.
Faith In Practice began in the early ’90s to help orphans and people in need through a partnership with the Franciscan brothers. The nonprofit sends doctors to Las Obras and Hospital Hilario Galindo, among other locations.
Wangstrom became involved after he was invited to go on a mission trip by a colleague about nine years ago.
“It turned out to be a pretty good experience,” Wangstrom said.
Volunteers include doctors who specialize in orthopedics, gynecology, urology, dental, and ear, nose and throat.
“I’m with a surgical team that goes to Guatemala,” Wangstrom said. “There is usually about 48 to 50 people. We bring down a variety of people. Sometimes spouses go along, and they are part of the cooking team.”
Wangstrom said the medical professionals who decide to go, pay their own expenses. “It’s a giveback to people outside the country, a Third World country,” he said. “The people of Guatemala are very nice.”
Liz Sawaya, a clinic manager with Porter Health and a colleague of Wangstrom, said those he works with enjoy listening to stories about his mission trips and admire his dedication to providing care to people in need.
“The time he gives and the passion he has for delivering care to these individuals who otherwise could not afford it is remarkable,” Sawaya said. “His commitment to helping others in this way is inspiring.”
Wangstrom said the surgical area of his Guatemala mission trips is in a monastery, which also is home to children. Some of them were abandoned by their families, and several have assorted conditions, including cerebral palsy.
Once on the ground, the team readies their treatment space and prepares to meet patients. While the monastery is in a city, many patients often come from “the bush,” or outlying regions.
“(People seeking care) are coming from 10 to 12 hours away, and a lot of times that’s walking,” he said.
As a veteran missionary, Wangstrom knows what to bring along.
“The first year I went down there I needed a headlight. The headlights down there were terrible,” he said. “Now, I bring my own headlight with me. You don’t want to go into surgery without the tools you need.”
The first few days are set aside meeting with patients and evaluating their immediate medical needs.
Of the 60 to 70 patients Wangstrom might see during his 10-day stay, about 20 to 30 might need surgery.
One of the more memorable patients Wangstrom saw during his mission travels was a child with a large cyst in the middle of his upper lip. “It was difficult for him to even eat,” he said. “We fixed him up and made his life a lot better.”
Some of the patients, Wangstrom said, often suffer from lung problems.
“A lot of the people don’t have chimneys in their homes,” he said. “They’ll just build a fire right in the room. We see a lot of people with inhalation smoke problems.”
Wangstrom said he does mission work to give back. “It’s a really positive feeling helping people and not getting paid for it,” he said. “It is faith based, but you don’t have to be religious to go on the trip.”