Project Outreach

August 28, 2017

Project Outreach, established in 1993, provides medical services to children in the developing world. It is a non-profit organization of medical volunteers that is based in Calgary.

See below to learn about the experiences of co-founder Dr. Ruth Connors and fourth-year plastic surgery resident, Dr. Becky Hartley.

Dr. Ruth Connors/Project Outreach

Income for the soul

Pediatric anesthesiologist Dr. Ruth Connors had only been in Calgary for a year when she did her first medical mission to the developing world in 1992.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” she recalls. Inspired by the mission, she decided to form an organization that could take Calgary-based medical professionals where they were needed most. Together with her colleague, Dr. Roger Galbraith, Project Outreach was established in 1993, with a dual-goal: To provide much-needed medical services to children in the developing world, and to increase medical capacity within the communities they visited.

For the organization’s first mission 24 year ago, staff from Alberta Children's Hospital traveled to Danang, Vietnam, where they worked with a local pediatric surgeon, Dr. Phung, to perform cleft lip and palate reconstructive surgery.

As the first medical mission allowed into Danang after the Vietnam war, it was an incredible experience for all involved. “We did have to jump through a few hoops in 1993, to get in,” says Dr. Connors, who, along with the Project Outreach team, was invited to Danang by Dr. Phung. “We were working in a former U.S. Army hospital, complete with those quintessential green stretchers, like you see in the movies.”

Project Outreach has since conducted several other missions, including additional trips to Vietnam, as well as to Ecuador and Peru. They have also expanded their focus to include pediatric eye surgery, pediatric urology and pediatric oncology. In Ecuador the team focused on pediatric orthopedic surgery and in Peru, they undertook reconstructive burn surgery. On each trip, they also hold teaching days for local medical teams on topics of interest. “We want to share skills and knowledge, so that we can all learn from each other,” comments Dr. Connors.

In 1999, as part of that commitment to learning, the organization sponsored three pediatric nurses to spend a month at Alberta Children's Hospital. A year later, with the support of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, they obtained Educational Licenses for two physicians from Vietnam to spend three months studying their specialties at Alberta Children's Hospital. That same year, the organization also sponsored a pediatric anesthesiologist to spend six weeks in Calgary. In addition, Project Outreach members from Alberta Children's Hospital taught at the Institute of Pediatrics in Hanoi from 2000 to 2005.

While the Project Outreach teams have changed over the years, Dr. Connors notes that all physician volunteers donate their time and cover their own expenses to travel to the missions. “We do hold fundraising events, including galas,” she explains. “We use the monies raised to cover the costs for nurses and other non-MD team members, and support our commitment to ensuring each child can live a healthy, productive life.”

Project Outreach returned to Danang Vietnam in April 2017, to again provide help to children with cleft lip and palate defects and hypospadius. Another trip to Vietnam is planned for 2018 and further missions will be made to Peru. As long as the need is there, Dr. Connors intends to continue the organization’s work. To find out more about Project Outreach visit the website: www.projectoutreachcalgary.org

“It’s an incredible blessing and a privilege to do work in the developing world. When you are able to give in this way, you get so much more in return. It really is income for the soul.”

Dr. Becky Hartley/Project Outreach

Creating life-changing results

Pictured L to R: Dr. Fraulin (plastic surgery lead), Dr. Hartley (plastic surgery resident) and Dr. Hurdle (plastic surgery resident)

For Becky Hartley, a fourth-year plastic surgery resident at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, the chance to travel to Danang Vietnam to deliver medical care to people in need was too good to pass up.

As members of Project Outreach’s most recent medical mission, Dr. Hartley and fellow resident, Dr. Valerie Hurdle, spent almost two weeks assisting with plastic surgeries. The two residents joined a multi-disciplinary team of medical professionals at Tam Tri Hospital in Danang. There, the team performed a number of complex cleft lip and palate surgeries and hypospadias repairs on children and adults who might not otherwise have received medical care.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this,” exclaims Dr. Hartley, who had never travelled with a medical mission before and was impressed with the efficiency and effectiveness of the processes.

“It was an incredibly busy schedule. We saw more than 100 patients for assessments on our first day,” she says. Surgeries were scheduled for the remainder of the week, with each team tackling four cases each day. “We had Saturday and Sunday off, then operated Monday and Tuesday again before doing follow-up and heading home. From what I understand that’s a pretty typical schedule for this type of work.”

Dr. Hartley notes that while the conditions they worked in were somewhat different than what they were used to in Canada, many of the mission members who were experienced internationally were impressed with Tam Tri Hospital and all were very pleased with what they were able to accomplish.

“We brought a lot of our own supplies and equipment,” says Dr. Hartley. “We also brought along our own post-op nurses, to emulate Canadian post-op care.”

“We really meshed together well and the OR was so collegial,” she continues. “As a resident, cleft palate surgery is quite a high level skill and we were able to do really good work for our patients”; work that was greatly appreciated by the patients and their families.

“People were so incredibly grateful and it was really rewarding to see what a difference this could make to them. We know that quality of life, including eating, breathing and speech – and employability – can be dramatically improved through surgical repair. And that can completely change the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Both Dr. Hartley and Dr. Hurdle credit Project Outreach plastic surgery lead, Dr. Frankie Fraulin, Project Outreach developer, Dr. Ruth Connors, and the Vietnamese Quang Duc Charity Association – led by Nam Nguyen – for making the experience so positive. “It was so smooth and so efficient. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.”

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