A Week in Colombia with Global Spine Outreach

Greetings from Cali, Colombia! In May, a member of INN’s team, Kyle, traveled to Colombia for a mission with Global Spine Outreach (GSO). Global Spine Outreach provides spinal surgeries to underprivileged children around the world. They partner and work alongside with local physicians to provide treatment to patients who otherwise would not receive care. Together, they correct spinal deformities, remove pain, and often prevent paralysis and extend life.

To highlight the mission, we asked Kyle a series of questions about her experience working with GSO as a surgical neurophysiologist.

What inspired you to join the GSO team on their trip to Colombia?

I was so excited, so grateful when Global Spine Outreach reached out to ask if I could join them in Colombia! For me, a medical mission trip was a long-sought after opportunity to combine some of my greatest passions: service to others and the field of medicine (notably IONM) but also an enthusiasm for travel and experiencing other cultures. To share such an incredible experience with the compassionate, brilliant, and similarly driven folks at GSO was a true honor!

Can you tell us about the types of surgeries that were performed and your role in the surgery?

The beginning of the week is typically front-loaded with the more extensive scoliosis fusions, with revisions and growing rod cases in the latter half of the week. Because of the lack of access to early interventional care, some of these procedures were the direst of scoliosis cases that many of us have seen. My role as neurophysiologist during these procedures was to provide intraoperative neuromonitoring to minimize the risk of iatrogenic injury; especially pertinent during such significant corrections.

Is the medical team all from the states or are you working with local medical personnel? Can you tell us about the different roles among the medical team? What roles is the team comprised of?

The GSO team consisted of three US surgeons, two neurophysiologists, and several administrative volunteers. Once in Colombia, we rendezvoused with GSO partner, Casa de Colombia, at CLO who helped us, our supplies, and equipment through the thorough Colombian customs. Casa de Colombia is an organization that provides health and education support services to underserved children in Colombia. You can donate or read more about Casa de Colombia here: https://casadecolombia.co/. Their scoliosis program is just one of many of their initiatives but helps facilitate the relationship between GSO and the local staff at Fundacion Valle del Lili Hospital. At Fundacion Valle del Lili, GSO coordinated care with local surgeons, nurses, and anesthetists. Everyone was incredibly nice and welcoming! I felt so privileged for the pleasure of working with such a great group!

Are the patients all from Colombia or did some travel?

To my knowledge, all of the patients were from Colombia! However, because it’s situated along the Andes mountains, travel within Cali alone can be arduous and many of the patients and their families underwent quite a journey for care! In partnership, we cared for 78 kiddos in that week!

How did the medical team prepare you for these procedures? What were the days like leading up to surgery day?

We arrived Saturday and spent all day Sunday, and each afternoon after surgery, in clinic for the pre-operative appointments for the patients that would have surgery later in the week, along with many more kids that will have surgery during a later trip. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip! As neurophysiologists, we might only see our patients for a brief interview pre-operatively. Here, we had the opportunity to get to know these very special kiddos and their families! In clinic, the neurophysiologists and administrative volunteers would take the patients’ height, weight, pre-operative pictures, but also passed out goodie bags of toys and candy, and we got to play games, dance, and have some fun together too! Additionally, after clinic each day, we would debrief from the day’s cases and discuss the operative plans for the next day; which was also a real treat! We don’t normally get the opportunity for such thorough discussions, and I learned so much!

Can you share any memorable stories or experiences from the trip that had a significant impact on you or the team?

Similarly, on the last day of the trip we got to do what GSO calls “fun rounds” where we see the patients post-operatively and pass out the Higgy Bears. This, for me, was the most special part of the trip! I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude from all parties involved. We all shed happy tears as parents described their excitement over their child being able to sit-up straighter in their wheelchair or breathe better after surgery. One patient even insisted on standing and walking a few steps for us through the post-operative pain because he was so proud and excited to show us how much straighter his back was! It was a very humbling reminder of how privileged we are to do what we do and to serve others.

What is the follow-up plan or program for post-operative care once the team leaves?

Additional post-operative care is left in the very capable hands of the local surgeons and care team! GSO returns every six months to continue their mission and follow-up with patients.

What is the significance of the teddy bears given to patients after surgery?

The bears have undergone their own scoliosis surgery! Founder of Higgy Bears, Lauren Higginson, states, “As a scoliosis patient myself, I know how hard this condition can be. I created Higgy Bears so every patient can have a little friend just like them to help them through their scoliosis journey.“

You can shop, donate, or read more about Lauren and the bears here: https://higgybears.com/

What were some of the key takeaways or lessons learned from participating in this mission trip?

GRATITUDE! I’m so very grateful for this vast and beautiful world that we live in, full of warm and welcoming communities like the people of Cali. I’m grateful that they invited us into their lives and grateful for the opportunities, abilities, and resources to serve others.

To learn more about Global Spine Outreach, please visit: https://www.globalspineoutreach.org/.

Written by: Kyle Steenburg, AuD, CNIM