Cavilla and team making a real difference

Flying Doctors of Canada information session to be held Sept. 17, 4 to 6 p.m. in AH118

He walked into the tiny, cleared out schoolhouse in a small seaside village on the southern coast of Haiti pleading for someone to help him. He was 61 years old, ostracised – mocked and feared by the children in his neighbourhood. No one would give him work.

Five years earlier he had developed a growth the size of a cantaloupe on the side of his head. No one could help him. On this day, in the schoolhouse, he met Dr. Ben Cavilla (BSc '00), one of three founding members of the Flying Doctors of Canada (FDOC). Cavilla was in Haiti doing humanitarian work with Heart to Heart International and Los Medicos Voladores (LMV) and checking out the suitability of Haiti for future FDOC projects.

Ben Cavilla
Despite the difficult working conditions, Dr. Ben Cavilla and his volunteers from the Flying Doctors of Canada program are able to help persons such as the man featured above, allowing him to return to a normal life.

"I spoke to the patient very frankly about the risks of bleeding and infection from cutting the side of his head open in these very primitive conditions, but he was adamant he wanted it done," recalls Cavilla. "We did not have anything to put him to sleep so we froze the area as best we could. He sat up in a chair for two hours undergoing this massive procedure in a hot, humid and dusty environment. It was very difficult; there was a lot of bleeding, but in the end I was able to remove it all and close the wound. He healed well; he looks normal and is reintegrated into his community.

"This is one of those cases where you feel like you have done something that really mattered. Stories like these are a part of the driving force behind FDOC being able to do more in the field, more successfully and more frequently."

FDOC was founded in 2006. It is a non-profit, volunteer organization of Canadian healthcare workers whose mission statement includes, "promoting and providing medical care and education and community development without regard for race, religion or nationality to those who are most in need."

Growing up in a family of 10, Cavilla understands the concept of going without. He remembers watching documentaries on Doctors Without Borders and wanting to become a physician. Cavilla earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Lethbridge in 2000, and while studying there his understanding of the needs of others expanded into a global perspective.

"One thing that really stands out for me at the University is the liberal education. I really took advantage of that and took a lot of different courses that opened my eyes to the diversity of people in the world. I think it prepared me to go into different countries and be open, accepting and pliable to my approach, to be able to build an organization that was non-exclusive," says Cavilla.

The organization's work in Central America began in 2009 in Nicaragua and then El Salvador. One of the most important focuses of FDOC is that the work they do in other lands is sustainable.

"We are currently negotiating on some land to build a permanent free clinic in El Salvador. Right now, however, we are a mobile clinic. We assemble volunteer teams of doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, translators and students (six each from the Universities of Lethbridge, Calgary and Alberta) and for several weeks each year we head into communities where medical help is not accessible," he says.

Transportation, lodging and food can present major logistical issues.

"We haul all our medical supplies, pharmaceutical supplies, our military grade x-ray machine and laboratory equipment. Sometimes we stay in tents or hotels that are little more than empty buildings with mattresses on the floor; often we have no running water and haul our own food. We set up in schools or churches, use local translators and see as many patients as we can," explains Cavilla, who will be coming to the University early this year to recruit student volunteers.

The opportunities for students to make an impact globally is significant and can be life-changing.

"Student volunteers are involved in various construction projects including bio-sand projects for water purification, building eco-stoves and clinic construction," says Cavilla. "They also work in health education, and have the opportunity to shadow physicians which gives them great experience."

FDOC has a host of excellent local partners that contribute to the sustainability of the projects, but the costs are great and much of the year Cavilla and the other board members volunteer countless hours to fundraising, planning and organizing the yearly trips. It is a sacrifice all are happy to make.

"One of the biggest things we are trying to do with students is to get them to develop an appetite for humanitarian work early on, and it's likely they'll then be involved throughout their lives," says Cavilla.

This story first appeared in the January 2012 edition of the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.