Offering Help Where It's Needed Most
A powerful tropical cyclone that roared ashore from the Indian Ocean on March 14 killed more than 1,000 people in Mozambique and triggered massive flooding across the sprawling southeast African country.
Matthew Wilks, MD, was vacationing with his son in Australia when he received an email from a nongovernmental organization called Team Rubicon asking whether he would be willing to join a medical relief team that was getting ready to deploy to the disaster area.
Wilks, who heads the Emergency Department and serves as chief of staff at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, said yes. First came the long trip home to New Mexico. And just a few days later, he met up in Dallas with 22 others – doctors, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners – for the four-day journey to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.
From there, the team relocated to a base in the city of Beira, flying out by helicopter to remote villages that were cut off from land transportation by the floodwaters.
“I’ve seen estimates that nearly a million people were displaced from their homes,” Wilks says. “I directly took care of several hundred people. My involvement in this is miniscule, but there are a lot of other people doing it as well, so the sum of all the miniscule efforts hopefully made an impact there.”
Wilks and his colleagues also assessed the need for specialty medications for HIV-positive adults and people who were going hungry because their harvest had been destroyed. The team arranged through the United Nations’ World Food Program for food and medication to be flown in.
“The two things I took care of most were malaria and intestinal parasites,” Wilks says. “We were the first contact they had since the cyclone because they were physically completely cut off, and they were completely out of medications.”
He also encountered people who were injured while climbing trees to escape rising floodwaters from rain-swollen rivers.
The medical team had with them translators who spoke both Portuguese and local languages. Villagers “were very appreciative,” Wilks says. “Everybody was thankful and happy to see us. It was a great response. The kids were very shy, but once you broke the ice, they were a lot of fun.”
The two-week trip was the latest Team Rubicon deployment for Wilks, who also flew to Puerto Rico in November 2017 after Hurricane Maria raked across the island. There, he and other medical volunteers shouldered backpacks to venture into areas that were cut off by damaged roads and bridges. Many local physicians had fled ahead of the storm and their patients were desperate.
“A lot of what I did was write prescriptions for people for their chronic medical conditions,” Wilks says.
Team Rubicon was launched in 2010 when a pair of ex-U.S. Marines headed off to help in Haiti after a powerful earthquake rocked the island. In the disaster’s aftermath, they saw the need to recruit skilled volunteers willing and able to venture into remote areas under precarious conditions to provide emergency services. The organization has since grown to include 100,000 volunteers.
Wilks, who learned about Team Rubicon from colleagues in the UNM Department of Emergency Medicine, believes that his involvement helps make a positive impact.
“I’m an emergency room physician,” he explains. “One of the things I like about that is I take care of all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their ability to pay. This is an extension of that for me. I’m able to take that goal of providing care for everybody internationally, now.”