If you visit Medical Teams International’s otherwise unremarkable warehouse, located on a tree-lined street in Redmond’s industrial district, you will find something quite unexpected. Beyond the company’s towering shelves of shrink-wrapped pallets exists a dark maze that occupies half the massive building’s breadth.
Inside what is known as the Real Life Exhibit, visitors traverse a labyrinth where they can step inside a refugee’s crudely made ramshackle home or stare down a 23-foot tsunami wave looming high above them. There’s debris from natural disasters and a literal dump with actual trash from a landfill where displaced peoples found sanctuary during a time of turmoil. Each section of the exhibit mirrors actual places were MTI has lent helping hands.
In 1979, Oregon businessman Ron Post sat in front of his television, watching as Cambodian refugees — some injured and dying — fled the Khmer Rouge across the Thailand border. As an image of an ailing refugee girl flickered across the screen, Post asked himself, what if that had been his own daughter.
“He and his wife both had a clear sense that they needed to respond in some way,” said David Carlson, MTI’s Senior Philanthropy Advisor. “Even though they were business people (with no medical background), they wanted to rally medical people to serve in a field hospital, which they ended up doing in a very short period of time — about two to three weeks. Some 28 healthcare professionals worked for three weeks in a field hospital that World Vision was manning at that time in Thailand.”
MTI has been sending medicines, supplies, and volunteer teams to countries across the globe ever since. In 2016, MTI impacted 2.9 million individuals in 27 countries.
One of the hardest hit areas has been Uganda, where more than 3,500 refugees cross its borders each day, according to Carlson. The Nakivale resettlement camp in southwestern Uganda hosts many such asylum-seeking refugees from Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Kenya, and Eritrea — all in need of health screenings and referrals for issues like malnourishment, malaria, and cholera.
“Refugee crises are not easily resolved,” Carlson said. “They are long-term, protracted crises are a part of the DNA of MTI.”
Working to improve the health of individuals in the throes of crisis must be in the DNA for Derek and Larisa Rodrigues, too, because the Kirkland residents have been journeying abroad to places like Haiti for most of their professional lives. Most recently, the Rodrigues’ embarked on a trip to Nakivale with their son, Adrian. It was their first time working with MTI after previously participating in grassroots mission trips.
“We felt like we were reinventing the wheel,” said Derek, referring to previous trips abroad with church and neighbor groups, activities that led the couple to partner with MTI. “It just didn’t have the infrastructure, the support staff, the planning, and the sustainability that we were looking for.”
The two fell into step once they arrived in Nakivale. Larisa, an emergency physician at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, and Derek, a cardiologist at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, both had roles to fill.
Larisa was given a backpack ultrasound machine from Fuji Film and put it to use, diagnosing internal ailments and examining crudely-healed, sometimes decades old, stab wounds. She also treated many other ailments, such as malaria, which was in season while the couple was there.
“One woman was being discharged with her chubby little infant and wanted to thank the doctors because, when she got sick, she and her husband were debating if they should spend what little money they had to give her a decent funeral or to take her to the hospital,” she said.
Meanwhile, Derek initially thought he might not have much of a role as a cardiologist in a third world country, yet found a way to make a huge impact.
“He turned out to be so useful because untreated hypertension is a real scourge in the undeveloped world,” Larisa said. “There are links between child malnutrition and the development of hypertension. So Derek has really done a world of good educating about hypertension (not only) for the locals, but also (for) the local medical staff, interpreters, and nurses.”
The Rodrigues’ not only wanted to do as much good as they could while they were there, but also leave Nakivale better than they had found it. That included two-way collaboration with doctors from the region, something Derek said he felt was very beneficial.
“You want to be able to empower the local people to be able to do this kind of work for themselves, but the idea that you are going to come in as a sort of mini-crusader to teach is very disrespectful to what is already happening there,” Derek said. “But what you really find is you learn as much as you ever give or share.”
In addition to camps like the one in Nakivale, MTI is also committed to helping victims of natural disasters — like Hurricane Harvey earlier this year — and the organization has a fleet of mobile dental busses staffed with volunteer hygienists and dentists who tour the area and offer free dental care to people in need.
“The question always comes up,” Derek said. “‘There is so much need, why feel the need to go help abroad when help is needed domestically?’ There are many answers to that, but one of the things is, it isn’t an either/or proposition for MTI. Here is an organization that is really involved with individuals regardless of locale.”