Bryan Balentine was a college student with an eye toward pre-med when his local church invited him to go along on a mission trip to Romania. "I had no medical training yet, so I worked alongside the nurses there, helping take vital signs and hold instruments and so on," he says. This was in 1995.
"That first medical mission was a shocker for me," he recalls now. "It gave me a new view of the world, and impressed on me how blessed we are in the U.S. to have the quality of life we do: roads, health care, and so on. We saw lots of patients with problems that are managed fairly easily here, but were markedly uncontrolled there because their economy was really struggling and many of them had no access to medicine at all."
Balentine, a Huntsville native and a UAB School of Medicine alum who's now an emergency medical physician at UAB Medical West in Bessemer, couldn't have known that his trip as a teenager to the former Iron Curtain country would set in motion two decades of criscrossing the globe to provide medical care in underserved countries: Belize, Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and most recently Haiti.
On a typical day in Bessemer, he sees patients with chest or abdominal pain, traumatic injuries, pediatric fever, and the occasional stroke. The facility is close enough to Birmingham that most significant trauma cases are automatically routed to UAB. "We do sometimes get what we call 'drop-off trauma,' on zero notice," Balentine says, "where somebody is stabbed or shot and a buddy drives them up, drops them off, and leaves. But those cases are not the norm."
A far-flung mission trip, however, often begins with familiar routine going out the window. On a recent Haiti trip, partnering with a church group in Knoxville, Balentine and the other volunteers made the 1,400-mile flight to Port au Prince and then drove an hour northwest to the small town of Arcahaie.
"One basic challenge there is finding clean water sources," Balentine says. "Most people get their water from the river; they wash their clothes there and sanitation also ends up in the water, so it's a perpetual cycle of parasites and disease. We saw myriad problems--people weak or dizzy with poorly controlled diabetes or blood pressure, skin cancer lesions, lacerations, one lady whose pregnancy was almost to term and needed a checkup. We saw a child who was ill from a severe septic infection, and we helped arrange transport for him to a hospital.
"In four clinic days, we treated some 700 people--so many that on the third day we ran out of medicines. So we had to sort of pass the hat and go shopping, to keep the clinic operating."
One fortuitous connection Balentine has made along the way is a Knoxville-based non-profit called One Vision International, whose mission is to create orphanages in countries of need. The first is in Haiti, where he says director John Miller "happened to come across some 70 kids who were living in an abandoned nightclub on the periphery of Port au Prince. They ranged in age from two to 18 or 19. There was no septic system and the toilets were overflowing. He proceeded to identify sponsors, found a house to rent and arranged medical care and teachers--Haiti essentially has no public educational opportunities for kids--in the process of creating an orphanage. There is now a physician on staff, who works in the area and knows where the resources are, which is very helpful when we visit. The chance to work with One Vision was a great opportunity that just slapped me in the face."
Balentine says a visit to the orphanage, on the way home from the clinic in Arcahaie, is a highlight of each mission trip: "It's such a neat experience. Even though nobody in our group spoke Creole, it's easy to connect when you're playing with kids, throwing a Frisbee or a ball. A lot of people brought crayons, books, candy, and small toys. These young kids will be the fruits of our labor for many years to come."
Why does Balentine, whose schedule is already full with a busy medical practice and family responsibilities, keep coming back to a stressful environment so filled with human need?
"To put it plainly, it begins with my relationship with Jesus," he says. "I've been provided with the ability to practice medicine, and there's no way I can pay anyone back for that--not my parents, or God. So I try to pay it back in some fashion by sharing and helping out whenever I can.
"I started out my career with all these grand aspirations of making a difference, but when I reflect after a mission trip, I realize that the people there have made a much larger impact on me than I have, on them. They bring me a different world."
Balentine is seeking volunteers to accompany his group on the next Haiti mission trip in January/February. His e-mail address is [email protected]