Solidarity Bridge brings healing and advanced surgical care to the poor in Latin America.
Eighteen years ago, a dear friend was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The news was devastating. She was young, the mother of a two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. We were both US citizens living and working in Honduras. Given the serious nature of her illness and the limitations of the health system in one of the poorest countries of Latin America, my friend urgently needed to return to the US where surgery and treatment could restore her to health.
I am not a health professional. Yet the precariousness of my friend’s well-being set off a siren that sounded deeply from my soul. I had to help. Within minutes we had a plan: I would care for the children while she traveled home with her husband. And in the whirlwind of that decision – the only decision, I felt – a certain peace set in. I would be part of her healing.
The desire to share with a friend is not uncommon; it springs from our nature, from the goodness of God’s love.
The odds were not good for my friend. But survive she did, her body responding to a carefully crafted medical strategy, born from years of study and practice of hundreds of medical professionals. And heal we did, her family and mine drawn together in the urgency of love.
Some years later, I met a man name Juan Lorenzo who, as a small child growing up in Bolivia, had visited burn victims in a local hospital. An industrial accident had changed their lives forever and he was witness to their pain. He had a prayer in his heart for the patients, but he was a just a boy with no tools for healing. At least no tools at that time.
But memory and compassion are powerful catalysts. In 1999, Juan Lorenzo was well-adjusted to life in the United States, raising a family with his wife Sarah, teaching theology, engaged in the business world. He would travel home to Bolivia where visible signs of the lack of access to surgical care became a constant companion to him, an inner restlessness, an inquietud that would not go away.
At the same time, Juan Lorenzo saw, with gratitude, medical advances in state-of-the-art hospitals near home in the US. He chatted with medical professionals who loved what they do and decided to build a bridge.
Juan Lorenzo joined up with Enrique, a medical doctor also of Bolivian heritage, and his wife Sarah and family members came on board. He shared his bridge-building vision with Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. He foresaw a process of strengthening professional skills and collegial ties among medical professionals in the US and Bolivia. He created an organization aptly named Solidarity Bridge, which is now a lay mission of the Archdiocese of Chicago devoted to building a bridge of healing and solidarity with people living in poverty in Bolivia and Paraguay
I came to Solidarity Bridge some 16 years after its birth. I had largely been given the gift of health in my life, however, I was a witness to suffering and death due to the lack of medical services globally and wanted to understand Christ as healer. I knew that the suffering I had witnessed in those who are deprived of medical care was also the face of the divine. I was searching.
And what did I find? At its 20-year point of service, nearly 1,000 missioners have served almost 70,000 patients in Bolivia and Paraguay. I was entrusted with the role of providing organizational support and guidance to several Solidarity Bridge programs related to surgical care.
The planning for each mission is meticulous. Equipment must be delivered, cases must be discussed, patients must be visited. Visiting doctors listen carefully to local doctors who on a daily basis work with patients whose health has been impacted by poverty. Local doctors and nurses are attentive to the surgical strategies and skills brought by the missioners. The days in Bolivian and Paraguayan hospitals are intense.
But each morning there is time for reflection, the moment when each surgeon, each nurse, each medical expert, each organizer or interpreter sits in a circle and shares in word or in silence.
Those were my moments for peaceful insight, for gleaning some truth about suffering and the hope of healing. And there I learned that the desire to share with a stranger is not uncommon. It springs from our nature, our recognition of loneliness as well as pain, and ultimately from the goodness of God’s love. Stepping onto the bridge is often our task. And then, in solidarity, we are no longer strangers.