On a medical mission

 

Deep in the jungle of Panama, University of North Carolina Wilmington alumnus Martyn Knowles '03 prepared to perform emergency surgery inside a thatched hut. In front of him, a 10-year-old Ngöbe child, who had severely cut his foot with a machete, lay on the floor.

"You have to do the best you can with what you have," said Knowles. His volunteer group may have been limited on supplies, but they exhibited a tremendous amount of compassion, helping hundreds of villagers receive free health care each day.

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During his time at UNCW, Martyn Knowles majored in biology and received the prestigious Emmett and Gladys Corbett Merit Scholarship for his academic achievement. The founder of the scholarship, Dr. J. Richard Corbett, commented, "It is tremendously gratifying to hear that Martyn is accomplishing so much. He was always a brilliant student, and more importantly, he is an outstanding young man." Additionally, Knowles was a resident assistant at Galloway Hall and an avid rugby player. After graduating in 2003 with honors in biology as well as university honors, he went on to attend Wake Forest Medical School and graduated in 2007. He is now happily married and works at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

 

Although sailing to some of the most remote places in the world is not your typical image of volunteer work, when Knowles heard about the opportunity to travel around the Caribbean for a week and help people in desperate need of health care, he knew it was an offer he could not refuse. From May 7-16, Knowles sailed to Bocas Del Toro, Panama, with The Floating Doctors, a medical group that travels by ship to administer free health care and medical supplies to people in remote coastal regions.

The group's ship, a 76-foot sailboat named The Southern Wind, carries medical supplies and volunteers ready to distribute them. While Ben LaBrot, The Floating Doctor's founder, encourages anyone willing to lend a helping hand to volunteer, Knowles' training and education as a general surgeon came in handy, and he takes great pride in being the first surgeon to have sailed with the group. Those with an interest in health care frequently volunteer.

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"The group accepts anyone willing to make a difference to volunteer," said Knowles, but he acknowledged that volunteering with The Floating Doctors is a challenging experience.

"The weather is blistering hot, the muddy ground makes it nearly impossible to walk and stay dry, huge spiders hang above the hammocks at night, venomous snakes slither by, and each day hundreds of patients wait to be treated, but all in all it is the experience of a lifetime," said Knowles.

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That said, he clarified just how remote some of the areas were. "We took a one-hour water taxi, then a four-hour taxi by car, and then a three-hour hike on foot." But despite the long trips, he insisted that the areas he visited were some of the most beautiful places he had ever seen.

"The surf is also excellent," he added with a chuckle.

Many of the patients had never seen a doctor before. Other villagers hiked for hours to be treated when word spread that The Floating Doctors were in the area. "The locals really appreciate the care," said Knowles. But The Floating Doctors' care is not just limited to people. According to Knowles, the group helped revive a sick monkey during his stay. Such acts of compassion go a long way with the locals, who base their wealth on possessions, pets and livestock.

So how are The Floating Doctors different from other volunteer groups?  Knowles explained that in addition to administering care to one patient at a time, they train the villagers how to take care of themselves. During his time in Panama, he trained police and fire departments how to perform CPR and to administer burn care. After treating patients during clinics, the group returns three months later to check on the patients to ensure that everything is going smoothly.

Knowles added, "Other medical missions are frustrating because they only treat patients one time. We provide long-term care and a sustainable resource infrastructure. This is medicine the way medicine is supposed to be done."

Knowles will finish his soon finish his training to become a general surgeon in Dallas, Texas, but plans to continue in a vascular surgery fellowship.

He encourages UNCW students to research The Floating Doctors and volunteer. "It's rewarding to know you are helping people that really need the help. Some of the villagers had never seen a doctor before.  This is what it's all about," he said.