I went on a medical mission to the Kingdom of Tonga as a volunteer with a group called Amanaki Fo’ou which means “new hope” in Tongan. Please see our web page www.tongadiabetes.com. Regrettably, Tonga has been called the “heavy weight of diabetes” in the South Pacific. The World Health Organization in 2014 found that of the roughly 100k people in Tonga, 21.9% are diabetic, 71.8% are overweight, 41.1% are obese, and 21.6% are physically inactive. The combination of technology causing people to be more sedentary with a western diet has been very bad for Tongans. We have the same problem in many places in the world including our own backyard. Amanaki Fo’ou provides surgery, wound care, and education about diabetes.
We left on July 6th and returned on July 20th. The team helped build and plant 26 keyhole gardens, screened 236 people for diabetes and hypertension, gave presentations to 1,296 high school kids, gave presentations to 472 adults at churches, taught exercise classes to 1,316 people, taught healthy cooking classes to 168 people, donated over $303,000 in medical supplies and produced a video series in the Tongan language addressing the diabetes type 2 crisis in Tonga.
I was contacted by the group in January and I had honestly never heard of them. They asked if I would join the team and after deliberation I said I would if my wife and daughter could go as well. My son is currently serving a mission for our church in Argentina, so he was unable to go. I was contacted because I speak Tongan, understand the culture, and of course, have a vested interest in diabetic foot care. We went on the trip because we felt we could help.
I would start each day by rounding on the inpatients in the hospital then go to the OR or the wound care clinic. I would then lecture or help with health screenings in the evenings. My wife and daughter helped teach Zumba classes in the morning, then would help plant keyhole gardens, help with cooking classes, and help with the health screenings.
I studied Tongan for about 5 hours a week for 6 months before we left. This was very rewarding for me to lecture in Tongan. You can’t just go from America to a 3rd world country and just tell people they are doing things wrong. Humanitarian work is best received when you show people you truly love them by speaking their language, eating their food, knowing their culture and traditions, and bringing the best health care in the world to them. I was humbled by people with very little giving gifts to my family to show their appreciation along with lots of hugs. We took a boat ride one weekend to a smaller Island, ‘Eua to work there. It was neat to see humpback whales and flying fish on the way over. Our team met with the princess of Tonga, the Ministry of Health, and the CEO of the hospital. We also met with the principals of several large high schools. Many people feel that you have to be wealthy to eat healthy and we showed them that is not true. Also, many people feel resigned to the fact that they will eventually develop neuropathy in their feet, loose their vision from the diabetic retinopathy, have a below-the -knee operation, and/or lose their kidney function. We had to educate people, just like we do here at home, that many of these complications can be avoided by life style choices.
I always enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the island life which is certainly simpler than our life we know here but in many ways better.
The hardest part for me was fielding questions after the lectures if they spoke really fast and I didn’t understand everything. Also, being in a group, one has to be very patient getting everyone where they need to be when they need to be there.
My previous experiences there helped me to understand how the Tongan people think and empathize with them. I served a mission in Tonga for my church when I was 19 in 1988-1990. It always feels great to return to Tonga. I was last there in 1996 when I took my wife, Julie, there for the 1st time. We had a little time after podiatry school before we moved from Los Angeles to Detroit.
I feel that our mission was very successful in that we worked very closely with their physicians and nurses. Our job was to educate, so the work will carry forward hopefully for many years to come.
I would like to thank everyone that helped our family with our mission. We had neighbors take care of our house, our yard and garden, our dog, bring us food when we got back and were just exhausted. We even had friends help behind the scenes who wished to remain anonymous.
I especially would like to thank everyone at Portneuf Medical Center that work in the OR. They were great to gather supplies for me that were donated and sent on a boat in a couple months ahead of time for the mission. John Abreu, the CFO of Portneuf, has a huge heart. He simply said to “give the people of Tonga whatever they need.” Hopefully we made a little difference in a great big world. It was a good reminder to me how blessed we are to live here in the US. I wish every American could live in a 3rd world country for a while. On my first day there, I ordered an MRI for a patient only to find out that there is not an MRI machine in the whole country. They have a c-arm machine for taking real time x-rays in the OR but it is broken and there is no one there to fix it. We were there for only 2 weeks but returned home to all the hot water we wanted, instant clean drinking water, food in the fridge to eat anytime we want etc. We take many things for granted living where we do. Our family was very blessed to have this experience.