Medical Missionaries of Manassas marks 20 years serving the poorest of the poor

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As the first pastor of the Arlington diocesan mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic, Father Gerry Creedon’s mission was to care for souls. But sometimes, he also had to care for teeth. 

Twenty-five years ago, no dental care was available to his parishioners. So during an emergency, Father Creedon found himself extracting teeth in the rectory. 

In a country where starvation was a real possibility, these were the simple cases.

“It’s very difficult to baptize babies and a month later, bury them from malnutrition and contaminated waste” in the water supply, said Father Creedon, now pastor of Holy Family Church in Dale City. “You not only want to give them eternal life, you want to give them life on this earth.” 

This was the state of health care when two doctors and four nurses from Virginia, towing 80 army duffel bags filled to the brim with basic medical supplies, arrived in the Dominican Republic in April 1997. The group traveled by foot and pack mule over dirt roads and steep mountain paths to Bánica and six remote villages, where they treated hundreds of patients each day.

That two-week trip matured into a nonprofit, Medical Missionaries, which supports a clinic in Thomassique, Haiti; leads medical, surgical and dental teams to Haiti and the Dominican Republic; helps set up rudimentary medical clinics in the developing world; and responds to natural disasters in the United States and abroad. 

Though Medical Missionaries is nondenominational, its roots stem from the Arlington Diocese. The first trip was organized after Father Donald J. Rooney, who was pastor of the Bánica mission at the time, wrote to his former physician in Manassas, Dr. Gilbert Irwin, and asked him to consider traveling to the Dominican Republic. 

Irwin jumped into the project with vigor, recruiting the other doctor and nurses to join him. Though he had 24 years of experience at the time, the conditions in Haiti were unlike anything he had ever seen. As the group traveled from village to village, they saw countless people suffering from nutritional and vitamin deficiencies, parasitic diseases from contaminated water or mosquito bites and simple lacerations that had gone untreated. 

“This is a population that had never seen an antibiotic,” Irwin said, but during that first trip, the team immunized 2,500 children. 

“It was kind of overwhelming all the things we saw. A lot of the Haitians snuck over the border to see us,” he added. 

After returning to Manassas, Irwin decided to organize a trip to Haiti so that sick people wouldn’t have to travel hours on foot to obtain medical care. He reached out to St. Joseph Church in Thomassique, Haiti, to help facilitate the trip. 

“They were very much interested in seeing us, of course ... Between the city of Thomassique and six surrounding villages, there were approximately 125,000 people with no health care at all,” said Irwin. 

It was clear, though, that any kind of lasting change would require continuity of care. Over the next 10 years, Medical Missionaries obtained 501(c)(3) status and began to raise money from churches, civic groups and private donors to build St. Joseph's Clinic in Thomassique. 

Opened in April 2007, the clinic provides basic care five days a week and 24/7 emergency care. The clinic sits on three acres, has dormitories for the 30 Haitian staff members and visiting medical teams, and offers maternal and infant health care. 

Once the clinic opened, medical staff took steps for preventative care. After reading a blurb in the Catholic Herald about a foundation that wanted to fund ways to save lives, Peter Dirr, a member of the Medical Missionaries board of directors, submitted an application to fund a portable water system with a dispenser for chlorine to kill the contamination. The Gerard Foundation also funded community health centers staffed by health workers trained in basic triage and able to spot urgent cases that need more advanced medical care. This eliminated the need for sick patients to walk two to four hours to get to the clinic.

The group also has a fledgling effort to improve dental care, spurred in large part by Father Jack T. O’Hara, Holy Family parochial vicar, and Dr. Joseph Cavallo, a Woodbridge dentist. Disheartened by only being able to extract teeth during his trips to Haiti over the last three years, Cavallo started a dental hygiene program in August. Holy Family parishioners have donated $8,000 to help purchase equipment that will be installed at St. Joseph this summer, while the Palmolive company has contributed 500 toothbrushes. 

“I just felt so bad going down there and taking teeth out,” said Cavallo, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria. “We should do more.”

“Here in my own private practice setting, a lot of these patients that I treat take their own dental health for granted,” he added. “You know, down there I’ve never seen so much appreciation for the work that we provide though. You could just look in their eyes — and even though we don’t speak the same language because they speak Creole — there’s just a genuine feeling. ‘Thank you for making my life a little easier and getting rid of some of this discomfort.’ ”

Find out more

Go to medmissionaries.org or attend a Friends and Family Day April 22 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus George Brent Council Hall, 9200 Stonewall Road, Manassas. The free event will include music, face painting and a magician for children, and food for a nominal charge. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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