A local doctor will spend two weeks in Burma this spring performing life-saving operations on the sick and impoverished, thanks to the fundraising efforts of members of the Rotary Club of Riverhead.

Local business owners and community members have raised $150,000 to help cover the cost of the trip, which will send a team of doctors to Mandalay, Burma in February. One of those doctors is Rajesh Patel, a Riverhead pulmonologist who has participated in more than a dozen medical mission trips to poverty-stricken countries all over the world.

Dr. Raj Patel

Patel’s medical missions are organized by International Surgical Mission Support, an organization that sends teams of doctors to poor countries to provide free medical care. But the money for this trip is the result of fundraising efforts by Patel’s fellow Rotarian Jack Van de Wetering with the help of Steve Patterson, of Riverhead, whose wife Sharon is a longtime Rotarian.

“I was in Burma years ago, and I saw how poor the people were,” said Van de Wetering, owner of Ivy Acres in Calverton. “I knew Dr. Patel was doing these trips, so I asked if he would go there. He said if we could fundraise the money, then he would be able to.

“So we did.”

Mandalay is the second-largest city in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of 53.4 million that is also known as Myanmar. Burma is one of the poorest countries in the region, a result of many decades of fierce ethnic conflict and civil war. The majority of Burma’s citizens earn less than $200 per year.

Burma’s economic struggles have been devastating to its healthcare system, making it one of the worst in the world. Burma was ranked very last of 190 countries in the World Health Organization’s 2000 report on health systems worldwide. Limited resources at hospitals mean a lack of doctors and basic medical equipment, which allow treatable diseases like malaria to kill tens of thousands of people every year.

Organizations like International Surgical Mission Support make a difference, said Van de Wetering, because their doctors perform surgeries for people in regions without access to adequate healthcare. Volunteers like Patel also teach doctors in these regions how to perform some of these potentially life-saving operations.

“This work is very humbling,” said Patel, who is on the board of directors at International Surgical Mission Support. “It reminds me how lucky we are to be living in the United States.”

Van de Wetering and Patterson began soliciting donations from local community members and business owners over the summer. The response was “phenomenal,” Van de Wetering said – in just over a month, they were able to collect $100,000 from 20 donors. “People gave very generously.”

Between donations and grants, Van de Wetering and Patterson raised $150,000 to fund the trip. The money will go toward purchasing medical equipment and supplies. It will also help cover the costs of sending a volunteer team of 20 ISMS doctors to the other side of the world.

“In the past, they paid for this all out of pocket – even the airfare,” said Van de Wetering. “I wanted to see if we could do this as a community, to send doctors to perform operations that wouldn’t otherwise be available to these people.”

A reception was held last Thursday at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue for donors and for the doctors who volunteered to go on the trip.

Photos by Martin Burrows courtesy of Riverhead Rotary

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