Sometimes you just need to make a bold move to get your life moving in the right direction. For Lauren Olejarz, it was leaving chiropractor school. She just wasn’t happy. So when an opportunity presented itself for a career in intraoperative neuromonitoring, she jumped. Leaving school for an intimidating new role was a leap of faith but one she is grateful for. Every time she logs on to Facebook and sees the smiling familiar faces of children some 1600 miles away, she is reminded she made the right move.
A surgical neurophysiologist with SpecialtyCare’s Midwest team, Lauren loves traveling throughout the region. She gets to cover a variety of cases, work with different surgical teams, and explore new cities. But she’s also developed another passion. Her travel docket includes trips to Honduras under the direction of World Pediatric Project, a nonprofit that brings specialized care to 2,000 children each year in Central America and the Caribbean. Lauren has completed three trips so far and is looking ahead to number four.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the physician population density in Honduras is 0.37 physicians per 1,000 people. Access to specialized care is as limited as the funds to pay for it. But families there are so desperate to get help for their children, Lauren says, they join forces and hold fundraisers. (A majority is covered by donations but the family is responsible for a small portion of the procedure). Lauren accompanies a surgeon and small surgical team to give hope to children living with spinal deficiencies.
“These families travel eight hours, up to two days to see us,” she said. “You can’t possibly even really understand what it’s like to be out there. It’s the looks on kids’ faces when they’re in the waiting room. They look up to you.”
Unfortunately, not everyone who travels these great lengths will be treated during the mission. The team is there for a week and the surgeon must be selective for safety purposes, taking cases that they are equipped to handle. The facility in which they work is not a functioning hospital so the week begins building their own operating room – from all the instrumentation to booties, to hairnets, and masks. In all, they see around 15 children for the week and the more complex cases have the opportunity for the organization’s U.S. referral program.
Lauren says it’s heartbreaking to turn families away, remembering one case in particular. A young man, 19 or 20 years old, wheelchair-bound, was turned away because there was a chance he wouldn’t survive the surgery. His scoliosis was secondary to some other major health problems.
“I will never forget,” she said, “he asked the doctor, ‘what is the percentage I might die?’ And if it was less than 50% he was willing to risk it.”
With limited time and resources, these tough conversations will take place. But for the children who are selected, their lives are forever changed.
“All they want is to be “normal.” Something like Scoliosis for them means always being outcast. They anticipate a surgery that will not only change their lives (from symptoms) but make them finally “normal” and that is literally EVERYTHING to them.”
And Lauren’s life is forever changed too.
“It’s the most amazing experience you will ever have,” she said, encouraging others to take the opportunity if presented. “It humbles you like nothing else. You come back and look at everything that we have and everything that we waste and it doesn’t compare.”
“The amount of self-growth that do down there when you realize how much you depend on other people in the room and how much they depend on you, it’s incredible.”