Although the “in” box was filled above the rim in her Malibu office, Dr. Heather Holmstrom, family practitioner at the UCLA Medical Group offices in Malibu, decided to take a nine-day vacation in March to make some house calls.
But these were not ordinary house calls.
Holmstrom joined a team of 14 people made up of doctors and other volunteers who wanted to make a difference in the lives of others in Central America.
The group’s final destination was a small town on the Atlantic coast in Nicaragua called Puerto Cabezas. There, the volunteers, who use vacation time and pay for their own supplies and expenses, offered medical care to local residents.
This was Holmstrom’s first trip abroad as a doctor and she mostly assisted with pre- and postoperative procedures while Janet Salomonson, a plastic surgeon, performed cleft lip and palate repairs on children.
During their stay in Puerto Cabezas, the doctors not only performed surgery, they also taught local doctors and medical staff how to use the equipment they had provided for them.
“A woman with whom I play soccer introduced me to this trip,” said Holmstrom. “She has gone many times, and introduced me to the rest of the group. I then asked my dad to go.”
Holmstrom’s father, David Holmstrom, had done a lot of traveling but never to a Third World country, she said. He came on the trip to take part in a construction project that would provide a warehouse and a training facility near the hospital.
“We decided to be the first of our family to try the experience, in the hopes that we would later add more family members to the trip,” she said.
“I think he may have been partially motivated to go so that he could keep an eye on his daughter … to make sure I didn’t get into trouble,” joked Holmstrom.
“This was really a family contribution,” said the doctor about her overall journey. “I was the person who actually went on the trip, but my 5-year-old son spent hours with me beforehand helping to organize and prepare the supplies, including sample medications from generous companies and pharmaceutical representatives.”
And Holmstrom’s husband, Pedro Garett, a computer programmer, took the week off to care for their two young children full time while she was gone.
While Holmstrom was modest about her endeavors, Salomonson had different thoughts. “Her role was broader than that,” she said, recounting an event where a child was evaluated by Holmstrom and found to have a heart defect that would not withstand the surgery necessary to repair a cleft palate. “She was doing the medical management of the patients,” said Salomonson.
In Nicaragua, the local staff was not as familiar with using monitors to check on patients after surgery. In the case of oral surgery, “you can interfere with the airway, because of swelling,” said Salomonson, emphasizing the importance of after-surgery monitoring.
Salomonson detailed another instance of Holmstrom’s dedication and professionalism when she followed up on the recovery of a small child who had undergone surgery, despite practical difficulties. Holmstrom went back and forth checking on the child’s well being many times, even though the child was out of recovery.
Holmstrom grew up in Utah and wanted to be a doctor ever since she was in first grade. After graduating from high school, she attended Michigan State University College of Medicine.
She and her husband moved to Southern California, where Holmstrom attended UCLA and completed her residency at Santa Monica Medical Center. She began to work as a family practitioner in Malibu about a year ago.
“We wanted to live someplace warm and in a diverse environment,” said Holmstrom.
Realizing how fortunate they were, the Holmstroms decided to give back, starting with this trip to Nicaragua.
“I am extremely grateful to the people of Nicaragua for sharing their lives with me, and teaching me about their culture,” said Holmstrom about her overall experience. “I hope that we were able to touch their lives in the same way that they touched ours.
“I also met some incredible people that went on the trip with us,” she added. “Their courage and stamina was inspiring. It was definitely a bonding experience.
“Doing a trip like this, and sharing the experience with people who share your same goals, is something that no one can ever take away,” said Holmstrom, comparing the trip to sharing a freshman year in college with a roommate, but with a much quicker and more intense bonding.
Salomonson summed up the personal satisfaction of going on these trips eloquently when she said: “It punctuates my life. While most people go on with a weekly routine that seems to make time go by without notice, endeavors like these international medical trips give back a sense of time, they slow the passage of time down for a while for those who participate.”
Holmstrom plans to go back to Nicaragua, possibly next spring, but in the meantime, she will treasure the time she spent there in many ways.
“I learned about ‘Nicaraguan time,’ ” she said, of the more relaxed way that locals pass and spend time there. “Even though we were working all day, it felt much more relaxed because you took things more slowly, and got to them when you could. When I came back I really noticed how fast we all move, and how much more stress that adds to the day.”