PLATTSBURGH — Nicaraguan women are 8 to 10 times more likely than Americans to develop cervical cancer.
“It is the No. 1 cancer to cause fatalities in women ages 30 to 60,” says Karen Case, a nurse midwife/nurse practitioner and volunteer with North Country Mission of Hope.
She is one of an all-female team of heath-care providers traveling to Nicaragua in March to hold clinics offering pap smears, breast exams and HIV testing.
“The general vaccine that wards off cervical cancer in the Central American country is not available to the general population there,” said Dr. Roger Patnode, who heads medical projects for Mission of Hope.
“It’s really a cancer that shouldn’t be happening. Cervical cancer is treatable.”
Medical care provided by Mission of Hope has evolved greatly since the first contingent of volunteers began efforts in Nicaragua 15 years ago.
Then, huge crowds turned out to seek treatment at a clinic that offered what help it could in a kind of a stop-gap fashion.
“When we did the big clinics ... you were ‘putting your thumb in the dike’ kind of thing,” Dr. Kathleen Camelo said.
Eventually, the Plattsburgh-based humanitarian-aid organization established a clinic that operates year-round, with other health-care opportunities made available during the missions that take place at least twice yearly at various locations.
Then the group began looking for projects that could be started and completed within the confines of specific mission trips, with long-term benefits.
Starting in about 2009, Mission of Hope began holding clinics for breast health exams and to perform pap smears.
If cervical cancer is diagnosed, there is access to treatment, Patnode said.
During a 2010 mission, Camelo recalled, a woman who had tested positive for cervical cancer the previous year showed up at the clinic.
“She came back to see us and thank us for saving her life.”
With her, the woman brought the baby she had delivered in the interim.
“Really, really rewarding,” Camelo said, still visibly moved at the memory.
There is a similar scenario when it comes to HIV/AIDS in Nicaragua.
Screening is available, Patnode said, but the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS prevents most from accessing it.
And medication provided through the government there is available only with a positive test.
People do, however, get tested through Mission of Hope.
“They trusted us,” Camelo said.
“The private folks,” Patnode specified.
The results of HIV testing were shocking to the Americans.
At the Managua dump, where many of the most desperate poor make their home, 25 percent of HIV tests were positive.
Overall, the rate was about 10 percent, far higher than the U.S. average.
In Nicaragua, Camelo said, poor women usually only see a doctor only to give birth, and it is common practice to speed the process by Cesarean section.
“They look at going to the doctor as a very fearful experience,” she said.
The Americans came to see that women there feel far more comfortable being seen by female health-care providers, and the March focus mission is tailored to do exactly that.
“We try to educate them and treat them with dignity and respect,” Camelo said.
Also taking part with Camelo and Case will be nursing student Emily Topnick, licensed practical nurse Kim Sullivan, social worker Courtney Blaczko and Case’s daughter, Anna, who will deal with logistics.
The mission is dedicated to the memory of some special mission supporters, including Patnode’s wife, Marilee, who lost her life to cancer; Marlene Allen; Shawn Watson; and Shelley Willette.
‘IN A SUITCASE’
Needs for the medical mission include HIV tests, disposable speculums, paper for exam tables, medications and hand sanitizer.
“We basically take our clinic in a suitcase,” Case said. “We take everything with us.”
That includes camping headlamps to deal with poor lighting and the hand sanitizer because sometimes there is no water to wash hands.
One HIV test costs about $12.
“We like to bring 100 with us,” Case said.
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HOW TO HELP
Mission of Hope will accept supplies or financial donations for the trip. A Tea & Sweets Holiday Social fundraiser is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Greystone Mansion, 77 Brinkerhoff St. in Plattsburgh, with seatings at 1, 2 and 3 p.m.
Cost is $10 for adults; $2 for children.
Reservations are recommended but not required by calling Linda Ward at 563-0106.
To make cash donations or learn more, go to ncmissionofhope.org.