By Contributing Writer - December 10, 2019
A SIMPLE FAVOR CAN UNEXPECTEDLY TURN ONE’S LIFE FOCUS. IT HAPPENED TO JUKKA RASANEN, MD, WHEN A COLLEAGUE AT MAYO CLINIC ASKED RASANEN TO FILL IN FOR HIM BACK IN 2004.
“Randy Flick [Randall Flick, MD], who is now the director of the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, was working with Smile Network International. He was signed up to go to Querétaro, Mexico, and couldn’t, so I went in his place and have been going [on medical mission trips] ever since,” said Rasanen.
It seems relevant that Rasanen’s early volunteer outreach service was with Smile Network, as he originates from and earned his medical degree in Finland, named the world’s happiest country in 2019. During his work with Smile Network, he was among those providing life-altering reconstructive surgeries and related health care services to impoverished children and adults in developing nations. Many of the surgeries were to correct cleft lips or cleft palates. Now vice chair of Moffitt Cancer Center’s Department of Anesthesiology, Rasanen formerly served at Mayo Clinic in numerous capacities within the Department of Anesthesiology.
Since that first unexpected trip to fill in for his colleague, Rasanen has been on numerous medical mission trips — one or two per year — and served as medical director for Smile Network International from 2007 to 2010. Another life-altering event took place, ultimately as a result of going on that first trip. He met his wife, Gina, through Smile Network when she was the mission coordinator. She now works remotely for Mayo Clinic.
‘NOW I CAN KISS!’
When asked about especially touching moments during his mission trips, Rasanen reflected, “Well, it’s all touching.” After a short pause, he continued, “There was a lady in her 60s who had a cleft lip for all her life. And then she got it repaired and she said, ‘Now I can kiss!’”
Recalling another patient, Rasanen described how a mother walked for a full day with her 2-year-old son before arriving at the hospital where he was working on one of his trips. The child had a cleft lip and a cleft palate. “We just had a cancellation due to infection in a patient, and so we were able to just take that patient. He had not had anything to eat, so he could be anesthetized and both his cleft lip and cleft palate could be fixed within a day,” Rasanen said. “It all fell into place.” In the western world, all kinds of paperwork must be completed in advance, so a surgery like that just doesn’t happen within one day, he noted. “This was in Peru, and the mother was as amazed as we were.”
Over the years, Rasanen has volunteered primarily with three medical missions organizations. In addition to Smile Network International, he traveled through a program at Mayo Clinic in which he went on seven surgical missions to Hanoi, Vietnam. Currently, he has planned most of his medical mission trips on his own to Kenya, where he has gone almost every year for the past eight years.
While the Smile Network involved surgeries to correct cleft lip and palate, this condition is less prevalent in the African population. In Kenya, Rasanen’s work has focused primarily on treating older children and adults with burns. A substantial proportion of the population of people treated through medical missions there live in substandard housing where cooking typically is done over an open fire, resulting in many burns. Open cooking areas pose a danger for children playing and running nearby, and even for adults, he noted.
“There is little appropriate care for burn patients,” said Rasanen. “They don’t have much money, so they end up with these contractures requiring special care.”
CARE FOR BURN PATIENTS
Scarring after serious burns can lead to a contracture in which the normally elastic tissues are replaced by fiber-like tissue that does not stretch. Contractures often are painful and they impair normal movement in the affected area.
Basic requirements, such as the availability of blood products, certain medications and sterilization equipment, are essential to safely administer anesthesia or perform surgery. But “not necessarily air conditioning. That is a luxury,” Rasanen said.
Rasanen cautions anyone considering going on a medical mission trip for the first time. “Be careful who you go with. Make sure that the organization or the people who arrange the trip know what they are doing, that they have done their homework, and that it is a safe place and they have the proper equipment.” After those precautionary details are dealt with: “Just go!”
“It’s a real privilege to be able to participate.”
Gina has accompanied him on most of the trips to Kenya. David Thrush, MD, chair of Moffitt’s Department of Anesthesiology, has gone with Rasanen to Kenya, as has Robert Gabordi, MD, a breast surgeon with St. Joseph’s Hospital-Tampa (Dr. Gabordi is married to Moffitt certified registered nurse anesthetist Tracie Gabordi). Rasanen said on average 10 participants accompany him on the week-and-a-half-long trips to Kenya, and these volunteers pay all their own expenses.
“Dr. Rasanen does an amazing job of planning and organizing the trip; it makes it easy,” said Thrush, who helped with the education of students studying medicine in Kenya. “It’s a real privilege to be able to participate.” Thrush says he was amazed at the dedication of all the students and medical staff in the hospital. Additionally, it was meaningful to have been part of a mission to help severely burned patients.
“It’s also a very rewarding trip with unforgettable memories. Lastly, Africa is beautiful.
Having staffed many such trips, Rasanen has drawn some conclusions about the people who commit to such volunteer work.
“There are people who will say no when you ask them. And that’s fine.
“And there are the people who say yes but don’t really want to go; they think they are supposed to say yes, and they come up with an excuse two weeks before it is time to go. That is the most difficult group to handle because then you have to replace the person with short notice.
“And the next group of people are the ones who go once and they think they’ve seen it all, and they don’t want to go again.
“The next group of people go more than once but only to a place they haven’t been before; they are the ‘tourists.’
“And then there are the ones that go on one trip and they can’t be without it. They always go back.”
Clearly, Jukka and Gina Rasanen, along with many of those who accompanied them, are among the last group of committed supporters.
The inestimable fulfillment recompense from the work itself is what most attracted Rasanen to this volunteer outreach work. “It helps you understand that the skills you have are invaluable. When you get a paycheck, it puts a price on your work. But there you see that the patients and their families are grateful, immensely grateful. They don’t give you money. They give you their gratitude, and that’s [worth] more than the money that you get with your paycheck.”
“It helps you understand that the skills you have are invaluable. When you get a paycheck, it puts a price on your work. But there you see that the patients and their families are grateful, immensely grateful.