WILLIAMSTOWN -- William Bart Saxbe Jr. first visited Haiti in 1967 when he was a student at Harvard Medical School. Accompanied by a peer from the Harvard School of Public Health, Saxbe gave medical care at a European and American-run hospital.
In the 45 years since that first trip, Saxbe, an Ohio native, Williamstown resident and part-time surgeon at North Adams Regional Hospital, has been back to the Caribbean nation about half a dozen times, always returning to the same hospital, which is now run mostly by a Haitian staff.
The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been battered by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that decimated Port au-Prince, its capital, in 2010. Saxbe returned to the country two years ago, six months after the earthquake hit. He worked 90 miles from the earthquake's epicenter, and he said that some of his long-term patients had suffered both physical and emotional wounds from the destruction caused by the natural disaster.
"Haiti is a country that has been in trouble for 200 years, but it's a fascinating culture, and I'm very fond of the Haitian people. They have a lot of strength," Saxbe said.
Volunteering abroad as a physician is tough but very necessary work, he said, with long hours and living conditions that are often less-than-ideal. While the hospitals he visits abroad will have surgical equipment needed to perform basic outpatient procedures -- such as treating tubal ligations and hernias -- it is always a challenge knowing exactly what specific supplies to bring.
"We always run out of something, more on the medical side than the surgical side," Saxbe said.
When not traveling independently to volunteer his services in Haiti or in India, Saxbe has been to a host of nations through mission trips led by St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown.
The trips are organized through Medical Ministries International, an inter-faith organization that sends about 1,500 volunteers annually -- ranging from trained physicians to people who have never worked in a hospital or clinic before-- to some of the poorest nations around the globe.
The trips run from one to two weeks, and volunteers will perform various services at the hospitals and clinics they visit.
MMI's programs offer a way for highly skilled physicians like Saxbe, who also holds a Master's in Public Health from Harvard, to expand their outreach to highly underserved people, while also inspiring the next generation of potential health care workers.
This emphasis on young people makes MMI unique, Saxbe said -- volunteers can be as young as 16 years old to go on the trips, but must be 18 to work in the hospitals.
The church schedules its service trips during the summer months in order to open the program to as many interested students as possible, said Adrienne Wootters, co-coordinator for St. John's trips.
Wootters made her first trip in 2002, a year before Saxbe started traveling with the group. A physics professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Wootters had never been on a mission trip before. The closest she had come was traveling to Rwanda for six months as part of a Fulbright scholarship.
But for Wootters, this trip was different. Instead of living and working at a university with hot running water and comfortable living conditions, she lived in a dormitory, working 10-hour days and sitting in the back room in a clinic, washing dishes.
"We have an easy life here, living in Williamstown," Wootters said. "You go to these countries and you meet people who have so much life. I like to say these two weeks a year inform my other weeks of this life -- it's profoundly affected me."
Wootters said it is equally inspiring to work with Saxbe, the only medical doctor who participates in St. John's trips. She said his mentorship has had a lasting effect on some of the teenagers who go on the trips.
Saxbe said that the mission trips have given him the chance to engage with the world.
He has been to Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Peru, and is looking forward to the possibility of visiting either Chiapas, Mexico, or Peru again this summer through St. John's.
"Doctors are drawn to help people in need, and the places where we go are full of people in need," Saxbe said. "In some cases we can restore them to health, and sometimes we can put them back to a position where they can restore themselves economically -- we can relieve discomfort or pain or suffering, and that's rewarding."
St. John's Episcopal Church MMI trips ...
• The group is usually small. Usually about 10 people travel together, but as few as five have gone in some years.
• The group is split into two teams: a surgery team that stays at the hospital or clinic, and a medical team that will go to a community center like a church or school to administer basic medical care.
• St. John's has taken about 40 students in all since it joined
in the MMI trips in 2000.
Those who can will pay their own way, which can cost up to $2,000. Church funds help pay for those who can't afford the trip on their own, but all who go are encouraged to pay $500.
• St. John's trips are not exclusively religious, and they are open to people of all beliefs.