Dr. Donald Falknor is the current president of the TPMF (Texas Podiatric Medical Foundation), and a founder of the Podiatry Mexico Medical Mission to San Miguel de Allende.
Q1. How did the medical mission get created?
“The reason I was really passionate about starting this medical mission is that I myself was looking to be involved but I couldn’t find any medical mission that was podiatry focused.
About four of us podiatrists traveled to San Miguel de Allende to see if we could establish a mission. We only knew of a single podiatrist in this small Mexico City. Greg, our driver, gave us a lead about a potential hospital to get us started. We contacted Greg and we first began our mission with a small group seeing patients in his office. At first, we saw 20-30 patients per day. As years progressed, we tried to get our medical mission legalized by the government. My wife, Nelda Falknor, was able to get our message of the medical mission on the television station. From there on we meet a dentist who got us in contact with our current medical sponsor, a cardiologist, who vouched for us and got our program really started in 2013. From there, we started advertising on the radio more and switched our site to a large county hospital. Next thing you know we had 600 patients in 2 days. We were running very late hours, sometimes doing surgery and clinic until 9-10 pm.
We got burnt out.
Now we have a group of 40 people with us volunteering at the mission trip. With eleven residents and ten attendings. Now we have our own anesthesia that comes from Utah, he asked if he wanted to come and he came and brought the family. After his first medical mission with us, he was so excited and said
‘I have another guy; do you have room for him?’
So he brought another guy, and now we have 2 anesthesiologists and their families and they are ALL excited to work. We see a lot of patients, and we do a lot of surgery. It is very rewarding, we largely do it for residency education, we want to expose them to things they can do with their skill sets without seeking reimbursement.
They are the poorest of the poor, I remember one time in clinic early morning and seeing 100-200 people lined up on the street at 6:30 am in the morning hoping to be seen by us.”
Q2. What is your leadership position in the medical mission?
“I am the president of the TPMF (Texas Podiatric Medical Foundation), and I am also one of the founders for the Mexico Medical Mission.
My wife, Nelda, helps with the mission as well: she does a lot of the local politics, housing, volunteering, and socializing with people in San Miguel.
Organizing 600 patients in two days’ time is a lot of work. You need to be highly organized, and that is largely what I do: take care of any rising problem, interact with the government, manage the clinic and any physician issues. In the end, it all falls on me because I allow what can be done and what cannot. I had a couple of physicians that want to do big surgeries, but I have to set guidelines. This is a mission, not a private clinic, we are here to help people to the best of our abilities.”
Q3. It takes a lot of help and volunteers to run a medical mission. What kind of help do you get from the locals?
“Most of the locals are very willing to offer their house and allow residents and staff to stay for the week. Through the help of my wife and I we have been able to meet with various important people, which has defiantly helped us in our medical mission.
About 5-6 years ago, my wife and I were driving to downtown San Miguel, when our driver (Greg) told us of a guy with a large home that was willing to house the residents to save money. The guy’s name was Thom Beers, he wanted to meet with us beforehand before he commits to see how we run things. We went to his large home downtown and meet with Thom and we ask him,
‘What do you do?’
Thom says, ‘Well I am a movie producer, I live in Los Angeles but have a home here in Mexico.
We asked him, ‘What do you produce?’
Thom replied, ‘I produce reality shows, I just sold my production company. I did Discovery Channel for 30 years. In addition, I produced shows like Wildlife, American Idol, Ice Road Truckers, Monster Garage, 1,000 Ways to Die, etc. I have produced more TV productions that anybody in the U.S.
Thom then said, ‘I am actually interested in doing a documentary in your medical mission.’
Dr. Falknor replied, ‘We don’t have that kind of money to fund it’
Thom replied, ‘Don’t worry we will do it for free. My son needs a project for production school!’
So, his son Max Beers came over with a small production and did the video shoot for his documentary. The first day he came with his camera we had 200 people in the clinic waiting to be served. His eyes were like huge saucers because he realized that this medical mission is the real deal.”
Documentary Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nY3jXgaWyU
Q4. What lesson(s) have you learned by participating in a medical mission?
“The biggest lesson I have learned for doing this for many years is how profound the satisfaction is for helping somebody who really and truly needs your help and in doing it in an unselfish way with no way of getting a reward.
Some of the physicians have come back and tole me saying ‘they felt guilty and they feel like THEY got more out of it than the patients.’ I believe going to medical missions is the best way to combat physician burnout. It is one of the proven methods to help stop burn out by doing charity work. You see these patients and they are just so grateful, without us they wouldn’t get the services they need, they couldn’t be able to afford it…”
Q5. Is there a memorable patient that you have come across all your years of medical mission trips?
“I have a sad story and it’s of a young kid in his 20’s with ingrown toenails on both his big toes. He was so poor that he could not afford antibiotics, he had a severe infection for 2 years, and the infection grew into osteomyelitis. We had to amputate both his big toes just because he could not afford antibiotics and treat it early. Most of the patients we see are like that. They walk in with their shoes with holes, they walk miles and miles to come to get to our clinic.
How can you not sit back and say ‘how LUCKY AM I to be where I am at and I am even luckier that God has given me the resources and training, to help somebody who truly needs the help.”
Q6. Were there any language barriers, struggles, or difficult tasks that you overcame in the medical mission trip?
“The language barrier wasn’t much of an issue. The patients only speak Spanish, but it was not much of a problem for us. Many of the residents and attendings speak Spanish. A lot of us learn the language and if needed we will use a translator.
The real challenge in a medical mission is working out the inventory and logistics with getting supplies. We have to plan ahead to get our medical supplies and everything that we need in advance. Last year we had a REAL struggle. First, we create to see what we need: Ace wraps, Rongeur, curettes, blades, gauze, kerlix, steri-strips, medications, etc. Then we order it months in advance and the supplies get delivered in my office (in Texas). Then, the Mexican government, for the past 3 years, has sent a truck to my office to load the supplies and deliver it to Mexico to help us with customs.
We had a bit of an issue last year. Our truck was en route to be delivered several days before. Our entire team and staff arrived in Mexico the day before the medical mission to check for inventory, but our supply truck had not arrived. On the 1st day of clinic, we had to pull our reserve supply to make it through the day, but the truck did not arrive yet. The 2nd day of clinic day comes, and we have little to no supplies and we receive news that our supply truck delivery is getting pushed back. Long-story-short the truck did not make it on time, and we struggled. In fact, the truck did not come for months. We had to do clinic and surgery with volunteers hunting down supplies as we needed them. We went to several supply stores and hospitals buying everything they had. We had to close the clinic early because didn’t have the supplies to maintain it.
With mission work, the little things that we take for granted can be a big factor to run a mission smoothly. We are so used to having unlimited supply like in our hospitals in the U.S., autoclaves, and lights working, that we forget how blessed we have it.”
Q7. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in participating in a medical mission trip?
“The main thing to know is that once you do make the commitment to join a medical mission, know EXACTLY what you are getting into. You need to ask yourself: what is the time frame? the requirement? Do I need immunization? Passport clearance? Etc. Our medical mission does not require immunization because we in Mexico. However, if you are going to South America or another continent, they may need immunization requirements.
In addition, go in with an open mind! The mission work is not about you but what you can do for someone else, and as long as you have that in mind, it will be a very rewarding experience.”
Interview by Roberto De Los Santos