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It was 2009 when a representative from a company that makes pacemakers asked Dr. Mark Ottolin if he had a valid passport. Upon saying yes, Dr. Ottolin was informed that he would be headed to Bolivia on a medical mission trip because the pediatric cardiologist who was supposed to go couldn’t make it.
Fast forward to July 2020 — Dr. Ottolin, an independent cardiologist and a member of Edward Hospital’s medical staff, completed his 10th medical mission trip to the country, which is the poorest in South America and has a population of about 11.7 million.
He estimates he’s treated more than 1,000 adults and children during that time, many of them diagnosed with Chagas disease, which is caused by a parasite found in the feces of the triatomine bug. Without treatment, Chagas disease can lead to life-threatening irregular heartbeat, congestive heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest and other conditions.
Equipped with a portable echocardiogram machine, Dr. Ottolin does 30-50 consultations a day in which he’s able to produce images of the heart’s chambers, valves, walls and blood vessels to determine if a patient has heart disease.
“We find cardiac tumors, advanced cardiac disease, advanced congenital heart disease,” says Dr. Ottolin, who works with members of a multispecialty team of doctors and nurses to provide necessary treatment and follow-up care.
Dr. Ottolin and the multispecialty team are part of Solidarity Bridge, a group that has partnered with 500 U.S. medical professionals on more than 100 medical mission trips to Bolivia and Paraguay since 1999.
Unfortunately, visits by Solidarity Bridge may be among the few times the Bolivians have access to healthcare. Dr. Ottolin says a “hospital” in the areas they visit may do blood draws, chest X-rays and have a pharmacy with a meager supply of medicine.
“I’m often the only doctor they’ve ever seen in their life,” says Dr. Ottolin. “Bolivian people are special. For people with so limited resources, they are very happy and have a strong faith. After meeting with them, normally they cry and kiss me. They are so appreciative. I find it very fulfilling.”
Perhaps Dr. Ottolin’s most memorable patient was a 4-year-old boy named Santiago, who had been diagnosed at birth with a hole in his heart, which Dr. Ottolin and a pediatrician confirmed during an echocardiogram. Dr. Ottolin told Santiago’s parents in many cases these holes in the heart naturally close without the need for surgical intervention.
But Santiago’s mother insisted he was not fine. When she said Santiago was a foot shorter than his twin brother, that caught Dr. Ottolin’s attention.
As Solidarity Bridge reported, “The brother was at least half a head taller than Santiago,” says Dr. Ottolin. “Because of the comparison with his twin, I could see that further care was needed, and I was able to refer him to the Children’s Heart Program of Solidarity Bridge.”
“Mom knew right,” says Dr. Ottolin, who feels the need to pay back because he’s been very blessed with family, health, career and financial stability.
“I want to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness,” he says “You can’t make everyone better, but you can give them hope. I may have made the world a little bit better and that’s what counts.”
For more information about and to provide assistance to Solidarity Bridge, visit www.solidaritybridge.org.
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