When it comes to fulfilling a dream, not many people would place a working visit to Nicaragua at the top of their bucket list. But for Gloria Soto-Reyes, serving on a medical humanitarian mission was a goal she'd had since college. And she finally got her chance this summer.
Gloria, owner of Action in Motion Pilates and PT Studio in Danville since 2003, is a physical therapist with nearly 20 years of experience. On July 25, she and 95 doctors, dentists, nurses and support personnel from across the country set off for Jinotega, Nicaragua -- one of the poorest communities in the Western hemisphere -- on a 10-day medical mission.
They were volunteers recruited by IMAHelps, an organization founded in 2000 to provide free medical help to some of the poorest regions of Asia, Central and South America. The group has organized 12 medical humanitarian missions to impoverished areas of Latin America and Asia.
"It had never been the right time in my life," Gloria said. "It was in the back of my mind, but it was a big financial thing for me to close the shop for two weeks. My husband and I are empty-nesters now, and this year he said to go for it. It was a life-changing experience for me. We made a difference in the lives of so many people."
Gloria grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a Spanish-speaking household. She was awarded a four-year scholarship to the USC, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology then earned a master's of science degree in physical therapy. She and her husband, Paul Reyes, have been in the Bay Area for 20 years and live in Dublin. She learned about IMAHelps through Jeff Crider, a longtime friend of Gloria and Paul, who has been on seven medical missions. He said that, although IMAHelps missions often have more patients than they can treat, during the 10 days in Nicaragua the 95 volunteers saw more than 7,000 patients, victims of poverty and war, including survivors of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.
Gloria's bilingual skills were invaluable in Jinotega. As the only physical therapist on the mission, she worked closely with amputees who were being fitted with prostheses, and she could communicate with each patient, learning if the prosthesis was too tight, pinching or rubbing. Part of her work involved what she called "gait training," teaching amputees how to walk again. She also worked with people who had mobility issues because of a congenital disease, muscular dystrophy or some other undiagnosed condition. She provided exercise prescriptions, as well as walkers and wheelchairs, to those in need, thanks to the generosity of U.S. donors.
Reminiscent of the song, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," Gloria recalled one 19-year-old young man who came to the mission carrying his 20-year-old brother. He hoped that a walker might make his brother stronger. Gloria said the 20-year-old had debilitating cerebral palsy and could not walk unassisted, so she arranged for him to have a wheelchair and a walker.
"The most important part of this mission for me was working with amputees. You give someone a prosthetic, and you can make them more able to function like an able-bodied person," said Gloria. "It changes their life. I want to go on a two-week mission to a Spanish-speaking country every year. It was so rewarding to give back, and the people were so grateful and smiling for everything and that I could speak their language. It brought out a whole different part of me."
For information on IMAHelps, which is comprised of volunteers only with no paid staff, and/or to make a donation, go to http://www.internationalmedicalalliance.org.
Contact Georgia Lambert at firstname.lastname@example.org.