Some might suggest Dr. Laurel Bear has bitten off a bit more than she can chew. That would be everyone except, of course, Dr. Laurel Bear.
As a mother of three, Vice President of the Nicolet School Board, an assistant professor at the Medical college of Wisconsin, and a pediatrician running two clinics at the Children’s Hospital, Bear certainly has her hands full. However, there’s one more thing she decided to add to her resume: international volunteer.
This year marked the sixth year Bear and her husband, who is also a physician, flew to Honduras with the program Global Brigades to help those in need. During the week-long venture, two days are designated entirely to travel and four days entirely to work. On a normal day in Honduras, Bear says she’ll treat somewhere between 50 and 100 patients, a feat she calls “manageable.”
“Honduras actually was the second most prosperous Central American country until 1998 when Hurricane Mitch pretty much destroyed the country,” explained Bear. “It sort of dropped years worth of rain in four days. Total villages were gone. It just decimated the country.”
This is what inspired her to get active. Bear says the Global Brigades program is unique in that it partners with Universities so students-in-training have the opportunity to come help as well. Last time she went, about 30 students also volunteered to come along. But, with only six physicians including Bear, it certainly adds up to a long day.
“Some of the villages are a couple hours away and they have to walk, get a ride, or ride their donkey or horse,” Bear said. “It’s not unusual for them to walk three or four hours with their kids to get there. And then they wait in line, and we pretty much do primary care. I try to see all the women and children because I’m a pediatrician and I love doing all that.”
She says every patient gets a physical exam and take home things like vitamins, Tylenol, cough and cold medicine, parasite medicine, and much more. The doctors also hand out antibiotics if people need them, the labeling all written in Spanish.
But doing volunteer work in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere is obviously no walk in the park. Bear says the days of traveling are one of her least favorite parts, and the language and cultural barrier make things difficult.
“The most interesting part when I first started was when the kids would look at me and I looked so different,” Bear said, starting to giggle. “They’ve never seen somebody who was different, and they didn’t know to be scared or not! I’m a pretty nice person, I think! It took a long time for me to develop that relationship and learn how to interact.”
And she did learn. Translators are there to help the doctors who don’t speak Spanish fluently, like Bear, and a Honduran doctor is always with the team to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Also, as a pediatrician, she says it’s very rewarding to volunteer in an area like Honduras. Bear called it “delightful” to see mothers and their children interact in that setting, saying it doesn’t matter where you are because "a mother’s a mother and a child’s a child." And this is just one point on her laundry-list of favorite things.
“It has always been, and continues to be, an opportunity for two things: it’s something new professionally that’s intellectually fun, and it’s so fun to be with college students. They’re so excited and beginning their college careers, always asking questions and sharing stories.”
As she returns home from her life abroad, you may be surprised to find her doing one more activity. Bear is also the Vice President of the Nicolet School board. She’s been on the board for about six years, saying although she’s enjoyed herself, it was a challenge to conquer the “steep learning curve.”
“A few people asked if I wanted to run. At the time it was a very interesting time at Nicolet. There was a lot of discourse, so some people asked if I would consider running, and I’m not a very political person. But there were teachers without contracts and moral was very low, so I said, ‘Ok.’”
Now at her sixth year on the board and plans to venture back to Honduras next year, there’s only one challenge left to conquer.
“It’s fun to do a variety of things, but the hardest part is balancing home life, work, and volunteering. It’s real easy to let one of them take over.”