An adventure in Guatemala last summer has Amy Blok, DNP, CRNA, hooked on medical missions. Blok serves as assistant director of the nationally acclaimed nurse anesthesia program at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston.
Her unusual career path began in the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Austin after earning her associate degree in biology from Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. Blok learned about opportunities in nurse anesthesia from a faculty member while studying for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) at The University of Texas at Austin. Not until she asked Brigadier General William T. Bester for a recommendation, did she realize that he was not only a nurse anesthetist but also a retired chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
Blok worked as a registered nurse in an intensive care unit in Houston for a few years before going back to school to earn her Master of Science in Nursing through Cizik School of Nursing’s nurse anesthesia program. She later returned to receive a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to prepare to teach. The program she now helps lead has since transitioned to become one of the most respected and most economical BSN to DNP nurse anesthesia tracks in the nation.
Like her colleagues at Cizik School of Nursing, Blok maintains an active nurse anesthesia practice. She met general surgeon Buckminster Farrow, MD, while working in operating rooms at Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital. Each July 4, Farrow treats himself to a birthday trip to care for others who may have waited years for needed operations.
“A mission trip had always been on my bucket list,” said Blok, who went through a vetting process to join Farrow’s team in 2022. “When I went the first time, I wanted to go with people I knew.”
The Faith in Practice medical mission team arrived in Retalhuleu near the southwest coast of Guatemala on a Saturday. The next day, they were bused to Hospital Hilario Galindo, where Blok met patients for preoperative interviews.
“The hospital wards were open air, except for the ORs, and everything ran off of generators,” Blok said. “We lost power a few times, but it came back relatively quickly. That was the first time I had worked with no power.”
Blok was struck by the tropical beauty of Guatemala, but also by the extreme poverty of many of its residents. Due to the scarcity of medical services, village leaders decide who gets treatment and when. Blok recalled a story of one older woman who, lacking transportation, walked for three days to reach the hospital. Patients at Hilario Galindo often weep with gratitude when they meet the surgical teams.
Blok spent the week working in the ORs with two other CRNAs, an anesthesiologist, two general surgeons, a urologist, and a gynecologic oncologist.
“We all contributed equally and rotated who would do cases in the OR and who would float for the day amongst the anesthesia team. When I was in the OR, I ran all my own cases, start to finish. I was able to function in my full capacity,” she said.
To other health care providers considering a medical mission, Blok says go for it – and be prepared to get hooked like she did. She found value in having plenty of OR experience under her belt, considering the challenges and resource constraints she faced. Going with an experienced team the first time helped as well. Blok also notes that volunteers pay their own travel expenses, and some seek donations from friends in family to defray the costs.
“For me, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my career. It felt so good to provide the care that these people needed,” she said. “I am definitely going back with Dr. Farrow’s team in July. I would go once a month if I could.”
(Banner image): Assistant Professor Amy Blok (standing, far right) poses with her medical mission colleagues at Hospital Hilario Galindo near Retalhuleu, Guatemala.