Medicine with a mission: Florissant native travels to Bolivia to provide health care to the poor — January 27, 2009

Suburban Journals
By Paul Thompson


ST. LOUIS — January 27, 2009 — During her nine years in the Navy, Rebecca Neuhart has seen her share of the world, its beauty along with its hardships and human suffering.

At Bethesda Naval Hospital, Neuhart treated gravely wounded soldiers returning from combat in Iraq. From the U.S.S. Comfort hospital ship stationed off New Orleans, she worked with victims of Hurricane Katrina and saw the storm's devastation firsthand. On the lighter side, she spent two and a half years stationed in the lovely surroundings of Naples, Italy.

But it was upon returning from a recent humanitarian medical trip to Bolivia - outside the auspices of military duty - that Neuhart's gratitude for the bounty of the United States was renewed.

Part of a 70-member Project Helping Hands medical mission team, Neuhart, 27, spent two weeks last summer providing health care to poor Bolivia farmers in remote jungle villages in the Andes.

Traveling much of the time in dugout canoes to set up makeshift clinics in villages, Neuhart gained a crucial understanding of the hardships Bolivians face - the concrete-floored, thatch-roofed shanties, the lack of clean running water, the absence of basic medical care, the lean fare on which they survive.

"It was just so wonderful to come back and not take things for granted anymore," she said. "I have a lot. I'm really blessed."

Neuhart, who grew up in Florissant, where her parents still live, volunteered for the Aug. 22-Sept. 5 trip to Bolivia during a break from classes at Chamberlain College of Nursing in St. Louis. She graduated in December.

Along with their professor, Susan Fletcher, she and seven other Chamberlain nursing students joined the trip organized by Project Helping Hands. The nonprofit humanitarian organization was launched in 1994 to send medical, dental and educational missions to such nations as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Bolivia, Nigeria, and Kenya.

Working in remote villages with limited electricity, scant equipment, and unsanitary facilities gave Neuhart an opportunity to learn how to practice basic medicine under bleak conditions.

"You have limited supplies and staff," she said. "It's nice to practice nursing in a setting as different as that. You don't have that opportunity here in the United States."

While the trip was a learning experience for her, Neuhart said the mission's focus was to educate the Bolivian people in health care basics.

"There are so many problems they have that are so preventable. They don't have clean water. They keep their toilets near their drinking water," she said. "A lot of the people we saw weren't deathly ill. Some needed money for treatment, and we had some money that we could give them to send them to bigger cities for treatment.

"But a lot of them really need education, tons of education," she said. "They have a lot of things that could be averted if they had the knowledge."

Neuhart said much of her work involved explaining to villagers, through Spanish translators, the importance of wearing shoes to prevent parasites from entering their bodies through bare feet, cooking food thoroughly to kill bacteria, and of drinking and washing with clean water.

"Since we're not going to be there to treat the people on a continuing basis, it's important that we teach them good health practices that they can continue after our departure," she said.

While she earned required course credits in cultural diversity during the trip, Neuhart said the experience will make her a better nurse, particularly as a career naval officer.

"The Navy is doing more and more humanitarian missions," she said. "Going to Bolivia was definitely helpful for that."

The Hazelwood Central High School graduate earned her commission as an ensign in the Navy's Nursing Corps on Jan. 9 in Washington, D.C., and is currently on leave studying for her nursing board certification exams. This spring, she will be moving to San Diego, back on duty full time.

And while she hopes to develop specialized skills as an ER nurse in the Navy, Neuhart said she wants to continue involvement with Project Helping Hands' missions.

"I really want to go to the Sudan," she said.