Doctor ends 20-year Guyana mission

— When Dr. Michael Cole first began traveling to Guyana on medical mission trips in the early 1990s, electricity was sporadic, stoplights were scarce and water taps sometimes spouted mud along with an occasional frog. Making a phone call to Arkansas was expensive and took days to arrange.

Access to health care was also very limited, especially in areas outside of the capital city of Georgetown. It was that obvious need for medical care that drew Cole and other members of West-Ark Church of Christ to the South American country.

“In the first village [we visited] most of them had never seen a doctor in their lives. It was just incredible,” Cole said.

During that first trip, Cole, along with five other doctors and a nurse practitioner, treated 1,300 patients in 4 1 /2 days. The team also baptized 52 new Christians. It was the beginning of a nearly 20-year commitment for Cole, one that ends with his final journey this month. The team leaves Saturday.

Since West-Ark Church of Christ teams began traveling to Guyana, access to health care has improved and other groups have joined to carry on the work.Cole, 55, decided his 20th annual mission would be a good way to end the yearly trek and focus on other areas in need.

“The country has progressed,” Cole said. “It’s rare now where we go to a village where they’ve never seen a doctor.”

Cole took his first trip to Guyana in June 1991 with other members of the church. The congregation had been looking for foreign mission projects and Cole had expressed interest in being part of a medical team. He soon found himself leading a group - making travel arrangements, securing medications, trainingvolunteers.

Cole selected Guyana because of the medical needs there but also because most residents speak English. Being able to communicate directly, without a translator, increases the number of patients the team is able to assist, Cole said. The church also had contacts in the country through Partners in Progress, a missions ministry started at what is now Windsong Church of Christ in North Little Rock.


Guyana is located on the northern coast of South America along the Atlantic Ocean. Venezuela is located to the west, Brazil to the south and Suriname to the east. The country includes a mix of Christians and Hindus, as well as a smaller population of Muslims.

The climate is tropical and although Arkansas can be hot and humid, the intensity of the heat in Guyana can be dangerous.

“It’s rarely above 90 degrees but it’s oppressively hot,” said Jeannie Cole, who has accompanied her husband on 18 trips. “For a number of years our members would develop heat rashes. We have to remind them to stay hydrated.”

A few have succumbed to the heat and had to be treated with intravenous fluids. By using fans and drinking plenty of water they’ve been able to adapt over the years.

Jeannie Cole said the team members must balance the need to be comfortable with expectations of modesty. That means no shorts for the women and dresses must fall below the knee.

“The goal is to be comfortable, yet professional, so we can concentrate on the message rather than ourselves,” she said.


During the first trip, the team set up a medical clinic in an elementary school classroom in the village of Canal No. 2. Using sheets hung from rope the volunteers created makeshift exam rooms and began seeing patients at a pace much faster than in American clinics. On Cole’s first day he saw 50 patients but by the end of the week he was seeing 80 a day, almost three times as many as he sees a day in his office in Fort Smith.

Cole said he was initially afraid of what he would find at the clinics.

“I thought, am I going to see some tropical disease I’ve never seen before?” he said.

What he found was very familiar.

“They were the same things I see here,” Cole said. “Headaches, sore throats, ear aches, joint pain, back pain, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, infections of every sort.”

Skin rashes are also common, as are parasitic infections.

“Most of them know not to drink the canal water but they do and they end up with parasites,” Cole said.

The clinics are held in villages within an hour’s travel of the capital city so the teams don’t see many patients suffering from tropical diseases found in the jungle. Cole said they’ve had some patients with malaria and he’s seen a couple of cases of elephantiasis, a disease that can cause extreme enlargement of limbs or other body parts, but most are common illnesses.


Depending on the medical personnel available onthe team, patients are able to see a doctor, a dentist and an eye specialist. Nonmedical team members help check in patients, visit with them and offer a short Bible lesson. The evangelistic outreach also extends to area schools, where teens and adults hold after-school lessons and craft sessions. Nightly worship gatherings are also held and villagers are invited to attend. While the adults listen to preaching, the children participate in a Vacation Bible School program. The group partners with a local church for the clinics and the outreach.

“We want to make sure we’re not taking over,” Jeannie Cole said. “We encourage them to be active. We’ve gone enough times that we’ve built relationships with members who want to be of service to the community. We have time to get really close.”

Cole said poverty is widespread and the people they encounter at the clinics can’t afford to see a doctor, buy medicine or pay for eyeglasses.

“They only make 100 or 200 U.S. dollars a month,” he said. “They just can’t afford it.”

In addition to free health care and medication, the teams also provide free eyeglasses. They’ve given away hundreds of pairs.

Cole secures donated medications and the church also purchases bulk medicine from England, which is shipped directly to Guyana.

“They provide drugs to developing countries or clinics like ours and can provide them incredibly cheap,” Cole said. “We spend about a dollar per patient.”


On a recent Wednesday, team members were busy packaging allergy medicationin small, labeled bags to be dispensed to patients, as well as about 10,000 children’s chewable vitamins that will be given to younger patients. Cole said they’ll also take cough syrup and eye drops. Once they arrive in Guyana the group will also divide and package the medication shipped from England. Having the medication ready for the patients helps expedite the process.

“We hold clinic all day long and people stand in line,” Cole said. “We’re really efficient at this after so many years.”

This year’s team includes 18 volunteers. They each pay their own way, about $3,000 per person. So far, 158 volunteers have participated in the West-Ark trips, some going year after year. In 19 years they’ve treated 25,898 patients and baptized 791 villagers.

As the Coles prepare for their last excursion to Guyana they find the idea of the mission’s end bittersweet. But after so many years of leading the team, Michael Cole is ready to relax and find other mission opportunities and let someone else lead for a while.

“Then, I could skip a year without feeling guilty,” he said.

The mission trips leave no time for sight-seeing in Guyana but this year the Coles and other members of the team are taking time to savor their last stop. They plan to visit one of the nation’s many waterfalls, the majestic 741-foot Kaieteur Falls. Cole will undoubtedly share his observations on the church’s website - - where information on the past 19 trips is listed.

The final entry will be logged after the group returns June 13.

Religion, Pages 14 on 06/05/2010

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