Last week approximately thirty missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acted as interpreters for medical and dental professionals and volunteers from the US, Australia and New Zealand visiting the nation of Samoa under the auspices of the Pacific Partnership 2013.
Teams went out each day to offer free medical and dental services, hold health fairs, teach classes, and offer immunizations in villages around the islands of Upolu and Savaii.
“I was thankful to be able to help,” said Elder Kokkola, of Provo, Utah, USA.
He and another missionary, Elder Fuatimau, and a recently-returned missionary, Francis Afoa, interpreted for dental and eye care specialists at a district clinic in Poutasi, Upolu, Samoa.
A US Navy optometrist with the Pacific Partnership said "the missionaries’ help was invaluable.”
"Their language ability is amazing,” added a cardiologist from Seattle, Washington.
Interpretation in these kinds of settings is not without its challenges.
“What is the Samoan word for allergies?” Elder Kokkola mused at the end of one day’s work. Even the local Samoan nurses did not know that one. He ended up having to explain to the patient what it meant.
A narrow winding road leads over a mountain pass to the village of Taelefaga, Upolu located on the shore of scenic Fagaloa bay. The local people gathered to a home temporarily turned into a health clinic.
Medics measured blood pressure, checked for symptoms of diabetes, heart trouble and other problems, gave eye exams, diagnosed illnesses, and prescribed and gave out medications where appropriate.
At the screening table, Elder Levao, a Samoan from American Fork, Utah, USA, interpreted for patients being seen by a US Navy doctor and nurse.
“It is really enjoyable to help,” he said. He especially liked explaining what the doctors and nurses told the patients because, he said, "that will help them improve or take care of their health."
The doctor in charge of the clinic praised the missionaries for their help. “We could not have done it as well without them.”
Before coming on his mission, Elder Levao had served in the US Army Reserves for 18 months. He is on inactive status while in Samoa and will return to active status when he completes his missionary service in five months. He is thinking of making the Army his career.
At another table, Elder Smalley, a Samoan from Australia, helped medics from the US and New Zealand discuss nutrition, health and hygiene with other patients.
They explained how to use any medications the doctors had prescribed and gave out eyeglasses of the appropriate prescription for reading and distance vision.
“We are trying to help the community,” he said. “I am thankful for the chance to help in this way.”
He and his missionary companion try to give community or humanitarian service each week.
“We often help families with things like cutting the grass or helping on their plantation. As we visit people in the village we ask them, ‘Do you need any help?’ It doesn’t matter if they are members of our church or not.”
Later he and Elder Burges interpreted for medics as they helped a man in a wheelchair in a nearby fale (traditional open-sided house). The man is a recent amputee, needed to have his dressings examined, and was having some trouble with his chair.
Several days into the program, Lt. Karen Smith of the US Navy wrote to Church representatives: “The translation effort is going great. Thanks again for offering their service!”
She later added, “This mission wouldn’t have been as great a success without the help of your team.”
The admiration and appreciation went both ways among those serving at the clinics.
One missionary said, “I was impressed by the Pacific Partnership people, that they were able to come and offer such services to help so many people. The doctors and nurses were so generous to serve in this way.”
He observed that people who had had problems for years were able to leave the clinic with improved vision and relief from dental pain.
Some of the patients marvelled at how well the foreign-born missionaries speak their language. “They were really surprised I spoke Samoan,” said one missionary.
“It was a challenging experience, but I would do it again in a minute,” said Elder Stratton, a missionary from Laie, Hawaii, who worked with doctors and nurses who performed health screenings for children with special needs at Apia Primary School.
The children were being evaluated prior to participating in events like the Special Olympics. Their parents were also taught good nutrition and health care practises. Missionaries interpreted for parents and children. One helped reassure a child with special needs while his blood pressure was measured.
At the Lotofaga Health Center children sat cross-legged while enjoying a lively presentation on oral hygiene, hand washing, and good nutrition. A major goal of the Pacific Partnership this year is to have a long-term impact and education is one way to do it.
Graeme Bannerman, a Lieutenant in the US Navy and member of the Nursing Corps said they had been told that language would not be a big problem, so they had planned on using only one interpreter, a local nurse who speaks English.
It turned out that discussing medical, health and hygiene issues was going to be much harder than anticipated.
“But, with the missionaries’ help, we have been able to see three times as many patients as we would have otherwise.”
He added, “Elder Johansen is terrific; his help has been critical.”
One of the local Samoan nurses said, “I am happy the missionaries came, they are a big help.”
Nikolao Petueli, a young man in a white shirt and tie, but with no missionary name tag, interpreted along with Elders Johansen and Gasio.
“This is great experience to prepare for my mission,” he said.
Nikolao, who lives in Salani, two villages away, will leave for the MTC (Missionary Training Center) later this month.
Why did he come? “Because I like to help people and it makes me feel good.”