Dr. Miko Tuico (left), a clinical pharmacist at Desert Regional Medical Center, poses with fellow volunteers while on the IMAHelps mission to Quito, Ecuador, in August 2023.
PHOTO COURTESY ANGELO DIFUSCO
Dr. Nina Maw Maw spends most of her time treating patients at her offices in La Quinta and Rancho Mirage. But each summer, she travels to impoverished communities in Central and South America where she evaluates patients who do not have access to the types of healthcare services most of us take for granted in the United States.
Maw Maw is one of a growing number of healthcare professionals from the Coachella Valley and across Southern California who volunteer their time and talents on humanitarian medical missions organized by IMAHelps, a nonprofit organization based in Rancho Mirage. The group’s latest mission, this past August, took them to a hospital in Quito, Ecuador, where they treated 3,750 of the city’s poorest residents, including hundreds that lived in shacks and cinder block houses that were only accessible by dirt roads.
“What I do on these missions I do for my soul,” says Maw Maw, who has been volunteering with IMAHelps since 2012. The realities of life that people face in remote communities near the coffee plantations of Central America and across the Andes Mountains of South America are very disturbing, she notes.
Dr. Todd Swenning of Desert Regional Medical Center with his daughter, Eden, on the 2018 IMAHelps mission to Luque, Paraguay.
PHOTO COURTESY ANGELO DIFUSCO
In many countries, she says, patients may wait for several months or even a year or more simply to receive the results of a blood test because of healthcare delivery systems that are overwhelmed and inefficient. By then, she says, it may be too late to proactively address a critical health problem.
But during each IMAHelps mission, Maw Maw and other volunteers not only make arrangements to obtain timely lab results for their patients, but provide them with diagnoses, free medicine, and more importantly, information about their health conditions that they may not otherwise receive.
“We don’t just give them treatment for one day,” she says. “We give them education they need to live longer, healthier lives.”
Since IMAHelps was founded by Ines Allen and her husband, Tracey, 23 years ago, its volunteers have provided free healthcare, guidance, and hope to more than 100,000 patients in nine countries. Their services have included over 2,500 life-changing surgeries, such as cleft lip, cleft palate, and other corrective surgeries.
Operating without any paid staff, the local nonprofit organization has grown to encompass more than 100 volunteers, nearly a fifth of whom are Coachella Valley residents. But while IMAHelps volunteers cover their own travel costs and use their vacation time to participate in each mission, the group still relies on donations to pay for medicines and surgical supplies.
“We simply couldn’t do what we do without the support of our donors,” says Yardena Treviño, an office manager for Desert Med Aesthetics in Indian Wells who also serves as IMAHelps secretary and director of donor relations. “Our donors literally enable our team to work miracles in the lives of people who have no other recourse but to rely on medical mission teams like ours to help them.”
Dr. Doriana Cosgrove, an anesthesiologist with IMAHelps, with patients and assisting in surgeries during the IMAHelps mission to Quito, Ecuador, in August 2023.
PHOTO COURTESY DR. COSGROVE
Treviño’s boss, Dr. Doriana Cosgrove, has volunteered on every IMAHelps mission since 2008, including trips to Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Paraguay, where she has used her skills as an anesthesiologist and managed the IMAHelps surgical team. Adela Belet, who also works at Desert Med Aesthetics, volunteered for the first time last summer on the IMAHelps mission to Quito where she was moved to tears by the tremendous needs of the patients and the efforts IMAHelps volunteers made to help them. Belet helped prepare patients for surgery and get the ORs ready for surgery between patients, Cosgrove shares.
IMAHelps is currently planning two medical missions to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 2024. These include a small surgical mission with about 20 volunteers from April 29 to May 3, focusing on skin burn patients, and a big mission with 80-plus volunteers from all medical specialties, from July 25 to Aug. 4.
In addition to providing surgeries and other healthcare services for Santo Domingo’s poor, IMAHelps surgeons plan to provide educational seminars for Dominican surgeons on some of the latest surgical techniques used in the United States.
Dominican hospital officials told the IMAHelps mission setup team that there is a good chance they would not only treat local patients from Santo Domingo, but also refugees from Haiti, since impoverished Haitians often cross the border into the Dominican Republic seeking healthcare services.
Dr. Todd Swenning, orthopedic surgeon from Desert Regional Medical Center, evaluates amputees during an IMAHelps mission research trip to Tonsupa, Ecuador, in October 2022.
PHOTO COURTESY JEFF CRIDER
Many IMAHelps volunteers have literally performed life-changing surgeries, including Dr. Todd Swenning, director of orthopedic trauma at Desert Regional Medical Center. During a recent IMAHelps mission to Paraguay, Swenning’s patients included a 3-year-old boy named Mauricio who suffered from severely bowed legs, a condition called Blount’s disease, in addition to an extremely crooked left foot, which pointed toward his right heel. Swenning straightened Mauricio’s legs and corrected his left foot, using special steel plates and screws that were donated to IMAHelps by Kalamazoo, Michigan–based Stryker Corporation, one of the world’s leading suppliers of surgical products.
Dr. Jessie Davis was still in her residency at Desert Regional Medical Center when she first joined the IMAHelps team in Paraguay in 2018. She has since volunteered on four IMAHelps missions in Paraguay and Ecuador and says the experiences have not only shaped her perspectives on life, but on her role as a physician.
“I know I would not be the physician — nor the person — I am today without IMAHelps,” says Davis, who now works in the Emergency Department at JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio. “There is much that stays with me from that first year. Seeing young people with cancers, years overdue for definitive treatment. Non-healing fractures in otherwise healthy individuals, debilitated by lack of access to proper care. Facial deformities, masses and tumors, avascular necrosis, festering infections, and people who urgently needed surgical interventions.”
Davis says she has been humbled by the gratefulness of patients who seek treatment from IMAHelps volunteers. “More than anything,” she shares, “I remember gratitude and kindness. A woman bringing a small bag of apples as a thank you. People singing in line. Tears of hope, joy, and relief. Children playing in the field where we provided care. It was from the culmination of every experience from that first mission that I knew I’d continue to come back.”
Dr. Nina Maw Maw (left) on IMAHelps medical missions to Nicaragua and Paraguay.
PHOTO COURTESY JEFF CRIDER
Some IMAHelps volunteers bring their children on medical missions, and the experiences are life-changing for them, too. Swenning’s daughter, Eden, was so inspired by seeing her father’s work in Paraguay that she is now pursuing a career in medicine. So is Cosgrove’s daughter, Leah, who is now attending Pepperdine University. Maw Maw’s children, Tamy and Kevalyn, are also pursuing careers in healthcare.
Of course, volunteering on medical missions can be daunting. Dr. Miko Tuico, a pharmacist at Desert Regional Medical Center, was the lone pharmacist on the weeklong IMAHelps mission to Quito, Ecuador, last August, where she processed prescriptions for 3,750 people. Tuico says she has already reached out to two other pharmacist friends to join her on the IMAHelps mission to Santo Domingo next summer so that they can better handle the workload that could involve several thousand patients.
But even though volunteering on medical missions is hard work, it’s extremely rewarding, reports Tuico, who started volunteering with IMAHelps in 2019. Unlike most pharmacists, Tuico processes prescriptions in a basement at Desert Regional and doesn’t have the opportunity to interact face-to-face with patients. “I mostly talk to doctors and nurses,” she says. “But on these missions, I get to see the action and see the people we help.” Tuico also enjoys working with her fellow IMAHelps volunteers. “We’re like a big family.”
IMAHelps is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. To volunteer on a future mission or to make a donation, please visit imahelps.org.