Mission trip inspires Catholic doctors


By Celine Klosterman

After examining a 7-year-old girl whose left hand was bitten by a snake, Dr. Michelle Tansey gives her a high-five. Also pictured is the girl’s mother, a member of the Maasai people. Tansey and Dr. Tom Bainbridge, not pictured, members of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, made a medical mission trip to Kenya in September.

Thanks in part to two Catholics who recently made a medical mission trip to Kenya, people with burns, cancer, severe thyroid disease, back pain, arthritis and other afflictions received long-awaited treatment.

Doctors Michelle Tansey and Tom Bainbridge, members of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, spent Sept. 8-25 helping treat 300 people who visited a clinic that the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi run in the town of Naivasha. Tansey, a general surgeon, helped perform 72 surgical procedures. Bainbridge, an internal medicine practitioner, saw dozens of patients with infectious diseases that often resulted from drinking impure water, and treated farmers with back, neck or knee pain caused by carrying heavy loads of hay or grain.

The parishioners were among about 25 people who traveled to Naivasha through a medical mission organized by the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. Tansey worked in Chicago when she received her first invitation to visit Kenya with a group from that diocese in 2008. “I thought I had the skills to make a difference, and using my time would be an even better way to help than writing a check,” she said.

She has since traveled to Kenya four times, and invited Bainbridge to come on the most recent journey.


Each medical missionary brought 50 pounds of pain relievers, antibiotics, surgical instruments and other medical supplies on the trip, Bainbridge said. Supplies sent in advance would be stolen and sold by desperately poor Kenyans, Tansey said. The east African country’s gross national income per capita was $770 in 2009, according to UNICEF.

Some Western-style hospitals exist in Kenya, but they’re too expensive for most residents, Tansey said. “When you make a dollar a day and surgery costs $300 ….”

St. Alphonsus Parish raised about $3,000 that was donated to Upendo Village, which operates in Naivasha to help people living with HIV / AIDS. An Assumption Sister of Nairobi founded the project.

A relative lack of resources at the Kenyan clinic posed challenges for the Iowa physicians. “I use more instruments in one surgery in the U.S. than I used all day in Kenya,” Tansey said.

“We’re used to having lots of diagnostic capabilities that aren’t available in Naivasha — lab exams, X-rays,” Bainbridge said.

He said he knows medical missionaries can’t solve every problem in two weeks. Their help “is like a drop in the ocean,” Tansey said.

But it’s a meaningful drop. “I’m a general surgeon because I love to find a problem, take care of it and make people better,” she said. “Knowing you’re helping makes a big difference.”

She, in turn, learned from Kenyans she worked with. “These people have nothing, but they are graceful, kind and full of joy. They’re always praising God.”

Faith is strengthened when it’s shared, Bainbridge said. “We went to church (in Kenya) and it was packed; people were very enthusiastic about the liturgy.”

To encourage others to consider making a medical mission trip, Tansey spoke at a conference of the American College of Surgeons last month. She travels annually to Haiti as well as Kenya, and said the experiences have made her more grateful.

“You learn that what’s important is your faith and service.”

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