By Jeanne Sager
HARRIS February 8, 2005 They may not be recognized on any government list, but Mike Sherwood and Ellen Herfield are American ambassadors in their own right.
The nurse anesthetist and registered nurse give up their vacations from their jobs in the operating room at Catskill Regional Medical Center to travel the globe literally spreading wellness to the world.
Both are part of a team called the International Surgical Mission Support (ISMS).
The program is similar to the better known Doctors Without Borders American healthcare workers donate their time to provide medical treatment in Third World countries.
Sherwood has been a member for the past four years although most of the group hails from Long Island, he joined when a friend from college explained the program.
Hes since been to Vietnam, Brazil, Nepal, Mexico and Thailand.
Each trip has lasted a week and a half and taken him into the depths of Third World medicine.
Herfield joined the group about two years ago. Sherwood had just moved to Sullivan County (he and wife Liz brought their children to Yulan since his family began vacationing in Sullivan County in the 60s, its been Sherwoods dream to raise his children here), and he was working on the same floor at the hospital in Harris.
Herfield said he explained the groups mission, and she jumped in with both feet.
He asked me one day in passing, How would you like to do volunteer work in Brazil, Herfield explained. I said, sure, it was as simple as that.
It sounded like something Id wanted to do for a very long time.
I didnt even know him that well, but that didnt matter, she recalled.
A 10-hour van ride through the wilds of Brazil fixed that the team was packed in with all the equipment theyd need to provide for the people of the backwater town they were headed for, from the blood pressure machines common in every American doctors office to the pharmaceuticals and intravenous fluids basic to any surgical unit.
The people they meet at the hospitals where theyre assigned are impoverished and desperate for care.
There are no HMOs or employee health benefits, Sherwood explained. If it wasnt for the volunteers, these people would have to scrounge up huge amounts of money for even the poorest of medical care.
In Vietnam, he recalled, there were little shops outside the hospital where people would buy their IVs and pharmaceuticals.
In places like that, Sherwood said, the people look to the American healthcare workers as a godsend.
It sounds corny, but we really are American ambassadors, he explained. You really feel like youre representing your country when youre there.
They judge Americans by what we do, he added.
Herfield said its amazing to learn peoples stories and realize that a small group of Americans can touch lives so deeply.
She tells the story of a Brazilian woman who had a tumor the size of a basketball growing out of her back.
In a country where dancing was an integral part of the culture, this woman could barely move.
I remember her husband came to the hospital after we operated and brought her a new dress, and I remember the one nurse telling me shed be able to dance with her husband again, Herfield recalled. I cried when I told my kids about that.
To think shed been living with this and someone came and removed it . . . we changed her life.
On the trip to Brazil there were many stories Herfield remembers hundreds of people lined up to see the Americans, and Sherwood tells the story of a fisherman who would have died if it wasnt for an emergency surgery.
The man was caught up in the tangle of his nets and a steel cable amputated his leg the surgical unit was able to save his life, something that probably wouldnt have been possible with the limited medical care available in that region of the country.
For both Sherwood and Herfield, thats what makes the trips worthwhile.
The travel is fun, but the work is so gratifying, Herfield explained. For me, this is personal its something I can do for humanity.
Its something you want to do from within, she added. I certainly dont see it advancing my career but Im fortunate to have a skill that I can use to help people.
There are always concerns corrupt governments, thieves, anti-American sentiments. On the trip to Brazil the unit was robbed of their supplies, and they learned not to go out without an escort.
Sherwood said these arent places where he can take his family, but it benefits the people of the unit as much as it does the people they care for.
We learn to make do with less, he said. Here I have patients who complain, Give me this, give me that.
In the Third World, people appreciate anything and everything.
It makes us realize how fortunate we are here in America, Sherwood said, how little we have to complain about.
People in America take things to excess and then regret it theyre too hot or they ate too much.
Kids there barely have a meal for the day, let alone three, Herfield said. And we have such fabulous medical facilities there youre working with what you have.
ISMS is planning its next trip for springtime this year. Sherwood and Herfield will join their colleagues at a leper colony in Nigeria, working with the countrys large AIDS population.
To help the organization fund the trip, the nurses are asking for donations which can be sent to ISMS Inc., 365 County Road 39A, Benton Plaza Suite 11, Southampton, NY 11968.