Ayden Toleman and Staff

Bringing Hope and Healthcare to

World Medical Mission - A Ministry of Samaritan's Purse

After retiring from a fulfilling 32-year career, Dr. Linda Eldred was eager for a new adventure. The California pediatrician has dreamed for years of serving in overseas medical missions. Already familiar with Samaritan’s Purse and its medical arm World Medical Mission, she decided to attend the 2019 Prescription for Renewal conference in Florida to investigate what the organization had to offer.

“I wanted to find out if this is where I belonged,” said Eldred. “I was super impressed. I liked the people. I liked the mission work they were doing.”

Eldred spoke with World Medical Mission staff and expressed interest in volunteering somewhere that was not too far from the United States. The staff recommended a couple of options that they considered ideal for a first-timer.

She signed up to serve on the Ruth Bell riverboat, a floating clinic that provides medical and dental care to people who live in remote villages in Bolivia’s Amazon basin. Unfortunately, COVID forced the cancellation of all scheduled river trips for 2020 and needed repairs kept the boat docked in 2021. The physician rescheduled that trip for April 2022. She had already arranged to go to El Salvador for a two-week assignment in January at the Shalom Family Medical Center.

“Suddenly I had two trips scheduled for the first part of 2022,” she said. “It was the opportunity to do what I have always wanted to do.”

Eldred stayed at an orphanage adjacent to the clinic and enjoyed interacting with the children. Most of her work at the clinic and orphanage involved conducting annual physical exams and well-baby visits.

Less than three months later, she was on a plane bound for Bolivia. Joining Eldred on the World Medical Mission team were a family medicine physician and her assistant from Canada, a nurse, and dental hygienists. The boat’s Bolivian crew included the captain, medical staff, a logistics coordinator, two cooks, and a translator. The group launched out on the double-decker riverboat the day after Palm Sunday.

OHOP couple at Samaritan's Lodge in Alaska

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All Aboard

The 12-day trip began on the Mamoré River, then turned up the Isiboro River to make stops at isolated villages where there are no doctors, no nurses, and precious little medicine. Their first destination—two days into the journey—was the village of Gundonovia that is home to about 45 families.

Villages sometimes are alerted ahead of time that the boat is coming, but inhabitants don’t know the exact day since a lot depends on the river’s fluctuating water levels. “The people knew we were there soon after we arrived. Word got out quickly,” said Eldred.

The boat’s main deck was transformed into a work station with three exam rooms separated by hanging blankets. Eldred treated about 35 patients per day, as entire families came for checkups.

ABOVE LEFT: Dr. Linda Eldred consults with patients on the Ruth Bell riverboat. ABOVE RIGHT: Local children participate in a Bible study.

At each stop along the voyage, Eldred saw children with health issues ranging from stomach aches and skin infections to fall-related injuries. One toddler had suffered a broken collar bone from a tumble down the wooden steps outside her home. Another patient Eldred helped treat was a 6-week-old boy who was seriously ill with a lung infection.

“It’s 12 hours by motorized canoe to the nearest hospital in Trinidad. It wasn’t practical for him to go, and his parents couldn’t afford it anyway. We gave him a shot of medicine and prayed for him,” she said. “He was a tough little fella, so I hope he did well.”

In the village of San Pablo, the dental team visited the school and taught students about dental hygiene. They also handed out Bibles and shared the Gospel.

For cases in which patients were too sick to walk out to the boat, the doctors ventured into the village to make house calls. One day they visited three residents: a man who was suffering from shingles, an elderly man who had limited mobility due to a previous stroke, and a woman who was recovering from a traumatic childbirth.

"You have to be flexible, because you’re not going to be doing the same kind of medicine that you practice in the United States or Canada."

Learning to treat patients despite limited resources proved challenging, but that is a valuable lesson for service in any medical mission setting. “You have to be flexible, because you’re not going to be doing the same kind of medicine that you practice in the United States or Canada,” advises Eldred. “You have to tell yourself that we will do the best with what we have and what we can do. If you agonize over what could be done in a first world country, you’re wasting time and energy.”

“You definitely pray more,” she said.

Eldred is interested in future short-term volunteer opportunities with World Medical Mission and Samaritan’s Purse. Before her next adventure, she wants to work on improving her Spanish-speaking skills. In the meantime, the mother of five grown children and grandmother of ten stays busy coaching a youth running team and competing in marathons.

“Running gives me stamina,” she said. “It will help me prepare for the next trip.”