Making House Calls in El Salvador

I've written before about our healthcare ministry to the people of El Salvador. My friend (and fellow) Sister Susan has been blogging about her experience there ever since she took over the ministry in December. There's a great article about our Paz Salud health ministry in this week's issue of the Seattle Archdiocesan paper:

Looking at a map of the sisters' Bellevue-based province, one might find it geographically odd for a religious community ministering in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and California to have a mission in this struggling country of six million people 3,000 miles from Seattle. Yet their presence in El Salvador dates back to the 1980s. Back then, the sisters assisted refugees uprooted by El Salvador's civil war. Today, they bring health care to the country's rural areas where regular visits to far-away hospitals and clinics are not possible.

They do it through a "brigade" of volunteer healthcare professionals from the sisters’ PeaceHealth hospitals in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, including St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham and St. John Medical Center in Longview, and from the PeaceHealth system office in Bellevue. ...

Sister Susan is based in the capital city of San Salvador in a combined house and office. Hers' is a full-time ministry. She coordinates the visiting health care teams. She works with the El Salvador government to allow them to practice in the country. And she works with the rural communities to arrange transportation and schedule surgeries. "Right now I'm setting up all the arrangements for our eye surgery brigade," she said last month. She also contacts patients for follow-up appointments and makes sure patients with ongoing medical conditions receive their medications.

Read the whole article in the NW Catholic Progress. They've also got a great sidebar piece about Sister Eleanor (who is now living in the room next to me since her return from El Salvador):

When Sister Andrea returned to Bellevue to succeed her as provincial, Sister Eleanor replaced her in El Salvador, and went on to serve there from 1988 to 1993, a year after the civil war ended. Working with Jesuit Refugee Services, she set up a desperately-needed health care program that enabled refugees living in the government’s “repopulation” zones to travel to San Salvador for health care services, something not available to them in the zones.

But because the government had a “blanket definition of refugees” as “subversive,” the ministry was a lot more challenging than simply sending people into town, Sister Eleanor said. Travel was risky because most of the refugees had lost their identification papers when the military destroyed their villages, she said. “If you were on a bus, and the bus was stopped and you didn’t have identification papers, you were immediately arrested.” ...

She was twice arrested by government forces. In one arrest, she was detained two days and nights after machine-gun toting soldiers came to the house where she was staying, suspecting her of working with the anti-government militia. The arrest was especially disconcerting to her fellow sisters back home because of a recent history of violence against church workers in El Salvador, including the 1980 slayings of three American women religious and a lay person, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero the same year, and the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.

In 1993, when the peace accords were signed, Sister Eleanor’s work was done as the Jesuit Refugee Services project was turned over to a local network. Returning home, she worked for the next seven years at the PeaceHealth System office in Bellevue, but she did not leave El Salvador behind her. She got the idea to continue serving the Salvadorans’ health care needs by sending volunteer medical teams to work in the country’s rural communities. She returned to El Salvador to direct the mission.

Sister Eleanor retired this year from the position, and now, at age 76, has moved to the sisters’ complex at St. Mary-on-the-Lake in Bellevue.

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