Father Robert Oldershaw leads the Solidarity Bridge team in a blessing as they pack medical supplies bound for Bolivia.                           Photo from Solidarity Bridge  

Some might measure the distance between Bolivia and Illinois in miles – 4,300 – some in flying time – eight-and-a-half hours. The volunteers and members of Solidarity Bridge, 1703 Darrow Ave., span the distance in their memories of lives touched and bodies healed and the pull of the mission to bring medical care to the poor.

Viewers of public television might soon have even more immediate access, as the PBS series “Visionaries” has created a documentary about this quiet but powerful organization – Solidarity Bridge in Evanston and Puente de Solidaridad in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The half-hour-long piece follows the volunteers of Solidarity Bridge on their March 2017 mission to Cochabamba and tracks three patients in the hospital whom Bolivian and American doctors treat – this time with successful outcomes for all.

Without fanfare and with little attention from the world outside until now, Solidarity Bridge has flown medical supplies to Cochabamba. These missions last a week to 10 days, during which doctors and other medical support personnel from the United States teach the doctors and nurses surgical techniques they might not have been able to learn, using the donated equipment previously inaccessible to their hospital. Since 1999, Solidarity Bridge has helped 63,000 patients and procured $40,000 worth of donations of medical supplies and equipment.

 “We have three anchors: surgical personnel, supplies and money,” Ms. Rhomberg said, adding that donations of any of those are always welcome.

“We were selected by Visionaries,” said Ann Rhomberg, Executive Director of Solidarity Bridge said to the audience of about 100 people who attended the inaugural screening of the documentary on June 7 in the Presence St. Francis Hospital auditorium. “They said, ‘We’d like to feature you.” She also said Solidarity Bridge has three anchors: people, equipment and money. “We’re hopeful that this documentary will extend our reach.”

This mission of healing and empowering the poor in South America, began in 1999 when Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa, a native of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, who had lived most of his life in the United States, “sensed an inner stirring that felt like a departure from his business career and various appointments related to his doctorate degree in Spiritual Theology,” according to information on the Solidarity Bridge website, Solidaritybridge.org. “Life was good, but God was calling him to something new, something that would connect him with his Bolivian birthplace and allow him to create a sustainable, practical application for his vision of solidarity as a natural extension of embracing the reality that we are all inter-related and profoundly connected.”

Actor Sam Waterston introduces “Visionaries” by saying, “Sometimes it seems like there’s more bad news than good news in the world. But, you know what? It’s just not true.” The U.S. team, led on this trip by Malcolm Bilimoria, M.D., arrives in Cochabamba to meet with the three patients selected for surgery. One shows the doctors a photograph of her family, saying through a translator, “These are the reasons I want to live.” 

A mobile laparoscopy machine has allowed the doctors at Puente de Solidaridad to expand some of their medical services to the smaller hospitals there. Puente de Solidaridad was established in 2005 in Bolivia “to nurture and oversee the ongoing programs; safeguard and distribute donated supplies and equipment; manage patient selection, documentation and follow-up, and perform a myriad of related activities,” according to Solidarity Bridge.org.

“‘Solidarity’ means we don’t call the shots,” said Father Robert Oldershaw, a member of Solidarity Bridge who has been on 10 of the missions. “We bring what we can bring for the excellent doctors [in Bolivia]. They are the decision-makers. We don’t say, ‘Give us your operating rooms.’ We say, ‘Let us help you.’”

Thirty minutes is a short time to contain 20 years, but Solidarity Bridge members appeared to feel that their mission of healing and empowering was clear.

“The one thing that is so fundamental to our core project is the year-round work we do. The key things are the spirit in whch we work and that we do surgery.”

“I thought it was a really touching documentary,” said Rocio Mendez-Rozo, Operations Coordinator at Solidarity Bridge. “It focuses on the team effort and what life looks like in Bolivia.”

Fr. Oldershaw said he thought the documentary was “very good. It focused on the main work that we do – which is surgery. And surgery is what they asked for.” He also spoke of the current Catholic Pope Francis and his emphasis on and empathy for the poor.

“The purpose is equipping, training and empowering,” said Jodi Grahl, director of gynecological surgery for Solidarity Bridge. “The trips are one way we support the Bolivian doctors on the ground.” She, with Janet Tomezsko, M.D., and Fr. Oldershaw spoke to the audience after the film.

Ms. Grahl told the RoundTable she feels the documentary offers “a pretty good snapshot of what we do and kind of explains what we are about. The important thing is how we approach the work, how we work with the people of Bolivia.” 

Dr. Tomezsko’s field is neurogynecology, often removing fistulas from women, improving their quality of life. “By the grace of God, I was here and met Dr. Bilimoria,” she said. She also said she feels the teaching aspect contributes to the sustainability of the program. “Solidarity Bridge has given me a bigger gift than I could give to the patients in Bolivia.”

“Pope Francis spoke of the importance of smiling,” said Fr. Oldershaw. The people in Bolivia “teach us how to smile, which motivates us and empowers us across the bridge, so we can go back again.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...