She saw the little girl on a playground in Haiti. A frail, skinny child, covered with dirt. Sores peppered her legs, some scabbed over and some bleeding.
Kristin Dykstra, PA, stopped and took out her first-aid kit. She washed the child’s legs, applied antibiotic ointment and wrapped the sores in bandages.
The little girl, probably 3 or 4, didn’t say a word. But she left an imprint on Dykstra’s heart.
“That’s why I can’t wait to go back,” said Dykstra, a physician assistant in Spectrum Health’s Vascular Surgery Department. “I just want to keep going.”
Missions of hope
She plans to return to Haiti in February for another week of mission work. This time she hopes to bring a team of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to fire people up. I didn’t feel this passion until I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. “It’s something you have to see and experience.”
Dykstra, 34, traces her volunteer work to her teen years. She grew up in Saranac, Michigan, and made her first trip to Mexico City with a church youth group at 15. She served on mission trips in high school and college and volunteered to help with Hurricane Katrina relief.
After she graduated from Grand Valley State University’s PA program in 2008, she began work at Spectrum Health. She thrived in the busy environment of the hospital.
“I love medicine, science and the human body,” she said. “My favorite place to work has always been in the hospital because each day’s agenda is unknown. It’s also satisfying to watch my patients get better before they’re discharged.”
But the mission trips of her youth tugged at her. She longed to use her medical skills to serve those in greatest need.
She went to Cuba for a week in November. And in May, she spent a week in Haiti, volunteering with Mission of Hope.
She saw the impact of the 2010 earthquake every day in Haiti: Many people whose legs were amputated still had no artificial limbs.
“They just use crutches. I saw them riding on the back of motorcycles with no limbs,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people can’t walk.”
Through clinics run by Mission of Hope, she was able to provide medical care and prosthetic limbs to patients.
“There’s something about watching someone who has not had a prosthetic for years be able to take their first step,” she said. “It’s so rewarding.”
She contacted Hangar Clinic, which provides prosthetic limbs for Spectrum Health patients who have had amputations. The clinic gave boxes of limbs and other equipment that she took to the mission in Haiti.
Dykstra’s co-workers, friends and members of her church also gave food and medication. She delivered 500 pounds of donations to Haiti.
Looking for team members
Now, she is working to put together a medical team for a weeklong trip that starts Feb. 4. Ideally, the team would include six or seven nurses, several doctors and mid-level providers, a dentist, pharmacist, nursing techs and medical assistants.
The medical team will provide medical services in mobile clinics that serve a number of villages. The volunteers pay their own way―the trip costs $1,800 and includes airfare, lodging and food. Dykstra made arrangements for the team to stay in a resort near the mission’s base in Titanyen, about an hour north of the capital city, Port-au-Prince.
“It’s 40 hours of (paid time off) for most people. It’s a sacrifice,” she acknowledged.
But for her, the rewards outweigh sacrifice.
“I really feel called to it,” she said. “I feel called to give back.”
As she looked into continuing mission work, she found inspiration from other Spectrum Health staff members. There is a rich tradition of medical professionals who volunteer their services to those in need. They include Gary Bissonette, a fellow physician assistant in vascular surgery, who has made numerous mission trips over the past two decades.
She also receives encouragement from co-workers in vascular surgery and flexibility in scheduling vacation time for mission trips.
“The department has gone above and beyond to support me,” she said.
Christopher Chambers, MD, PhD, the section chief of vascular surgery, said he admires Dykstra’s desire to serve.
“She is an amazing person with a heart of gold that feels obligated to use the medical skills and relationships she has developed here at Spectrum Health over the years to benefit those in need,” he said.
“In particular she has a specific interest, as an expert in limb care, in helping the countless numbers of amputees in Haiti in the wake of natural disasters by securing donations of prosthetic limbs and delivering and fitting patients—making a huge impact in the lives of so many.”
Helping patients in Haiti has had a profound effect on Dykstra.
“I feel like I’m really blessed to be doing what I’m doing,” she said.