Solidarity Bridge volunteers and staff load a truck with video monitors, cameras and diagnostic tools for work with epilepsy patients in Bolivia.                        Photo by Bob McCray

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Solidarity Bridge, an Evanston-based non-profit, shipped more than $1 million of medical supplies and equipment from its Darrow Street warehouse on May 7. From Evanston the medical supplies were driven to Springfield, Ill., where they will be packed into a shipping container with additional supplies and sent to hospitals in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The organization hopes the supplies will reach these hospitals in six to 12 months.

“Many missioners, donors, staff and [members of the] board of directors are from Evanston, including the founder, Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa, Ph.D.,” says Ann Rhomberg, executive director of Solidarity Bridge.

The organization sends volunteer teams of top U.S. specialists on short medical mission trips to train and equip local Bolivian physicians in complex surgery and other health-care practices.  These misssioners, Solidarity Bridge says, treat at American hospitals nation wide, many in Evanston. The goal is to help doctors serve patients who otherwise have no access to such vital care. With Solidarity Bridge’s year-round programs in neurosurgery, general surgery, gynecologic surgery and heart surgery, Bolivian physicians can better serve their fellow citizens long after the trips conclude. Since 1999, the organization has provided more than $32 million worth of medical supplies, training and equipment; seen more than 59,000 patients; and made possible more than 4,300 surgeries.

Most of the Solidarity Bridge programs are in Bolivia, which, with 51% of its population living in deep poverty, is the poorest country in South America.  The organization added a pacemaker program in Paraguay in 2011.

One Solidarity Bridge medical program provides heart surgery for victims of Chagas disease, which kills more than 14,000 people each year in Latin America. In Bolivia, the worst infected country, Chagas is the leading cause of death, accounting for 13% of all deaths. Half the Bolivian population is at risk, and one out of 10 people – 1.8 million, including more than 300,000 children under 12 – has the disease. 

Chagas heart-related problems include an enlarged heart, altered heart rate or rhythm, heart failure and cardiac arrest.  When the heart is this damaged, a pacemaker is needed to stabilize the heart and prevent heart failure. Solidarity Bridge volunteers have implanted more than 1,500 pacemakers since 2001. 

Many Bolivians who survive rheumatic fever develop rheumatic heart disease and need open-heart surgery to replace a heart valve.  At a cost of $12,000, such surgery is well beyond the means of the majority of Bolivians, who earn $1,000 a year. Solidarity Bridge partners with local Bolivian cardiac surgeons to treat this population.

Upcoming Solidarity Bridge trips to Bolivia include a gynecologic surgery mission trip in June to Cochabamba, a multi-specialty trip in September to Tiquipaya and a neurosurgery mission trip to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in the fall.

“We welcome anyone to join our effort. In addition to medical professionals, many travel with us as language interpreters, helpers, photographers and bloggers.  And volunteers can assist locally with events, mailings, packing or loading a truck with medical supplies such as today,” says Program Director Ms. Rhomberg.  

As it marks its 15th anniversary, Solidarity Bridge continues to expand. Ms. Rhomberg says, “We’re very grateful for the support we receive from corporations, individuals, foundations and parishes. All who support this life saving effort have an opportunity to be changed themselves.”