Millions of people around the world this year dug deep into their pockets to help those in places affected by the horrifying natural disasters that occurred this past year.

Time magazine recognized Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono as “Persons of the Year” for their passion to drive poverty into history and inspiration for others to do what they can to help address the inequities that are found in global health care.

We may not have the $29 billion Gates endowment or the large-scale strategies and connections of Bono, but each person’s contribution, no matter what the size, whether financial or time, will make a difference.

Healthcare is a universal major concern. Although many residents in the United States are uninsured, we at least have medical professionals and facilities.

There are numerous places in the world where people die from lack of medical attention because there is none at all.

On a more local front, Doctors of Mercy, part of Liga (league or group in Spanish) International, travels to rural areas of Mexico with medical personnel and supplies, translators and volunteers one weekend a month for ten months out of the year.

On the first Friday of the month, up to 18 planes depart from small airports from all over the southwestern United States, head for the state of Sinaloa and provide much-needed care to three clinics in rural regions in north central Mexico, a Mexico that tourists don’t experience.

How do they travel? Ben Schick is a pilot and fills his four-seater to capacity.

“It’s a long, arduous journey,” he says. “It takes six hours with three stops to get there.”

Everyone pays his own way, including fuel and accommodations. They don’t make the trip in June and July.

“We gringos — we can’t tolerate the heat,” he says. “The planes don’t like operating at those high temperatures either.”

Ben’s group built a clinic 900 miles south of the border where from 600 to 800 patients can be seen in a weekend.

Needy people are given medical, dental and eye care that would not otherwise be available to them.

“The indigenous people come and sleep overnight, trying to be the first in line to see the Doctors of Mercy,” says Ben.

Education is part of the program, too.

“The doctors try to get women to take Vitamin B when they’re pregnant to ward off diseases in their children, but in Mexico, it’s hard to do that.”

The clinic is a good place for hands-on experience for medical students.

“They see diseases that aren’t very prevalent here and some of the students are allowed to touch patients where they are not allowed to touch a patient in the States,” says Ben.

He explains that typically a first-year student works with cadavers, not live people, and doesn’t do procedures on actual patients.

Pilots don’t have to work at the clinic because their job is to fly, but Ben helps out.

“We spend two days working our tail off,” he says. “We have to be as efficient as possible to see as many patients as possible.”

In fact, he has learned enough to become an aide to the audiologist.

Ben’s first mission was in 2002. His friend, Dr. Robert Siegel, a cardiac specialist from Cedars Sinai Hospital needed a ride to Mexico and put him in contact with Liga.

Ben was a natural. He’d been flying for more than 12 years. He owned his own plane. He is a commercial pilot, a certified instructor and an instrument instructor.

He is a captain in the Civil Air Patrol, doing search-and-rescue, and he flies with Angel Flight, which transports, free of charge, badly burned patients who are so disfigured that they would create a stir going on a commercial airliner, and cancer patients who couldn’t stand the hassles of a commercial air line.

Ben’s day job is as a builder specializing in night clubs and restaurants. His passion is flying.

“As I became more involved in the aviation community I realized what it had done for me and I wanted to give something back,” says Ben. “It’s a way for me, rather than donating money to an organization and maybe not knowing where that money is going or how much is going to the organization and how much is helping the needy. My efforts are direct. It’s one-on-one.”

Besides aviation, another of Ben’s hobbies is filmmaking. The first year he documented what he saw and then decided to make a film to spread the word about Doctors of Mercy.

He took ten hours of footage to make a five-minute film that is a mÈlange of many different trips. The film is available to be shown to groups that might be interested in getting involved.

Liga International has been in existence for over 80 years. It is nonprofit, with only one paid employee, who does the administrative work.

Donations — financial, supplies and volunteers — are always needed. Do you have any old hearing aids, glasses, wheelchairs or canes?

Now you know who can use them. Check out their Web site at www.ligainternational.org for more information.

What makes people give up one weekend a month ten times a year to pay their own way to work in the desolate regions of Mexico?

For doctors, it is a joy to relieve the suffering of the poor and to practice medicine with no other thought than to do one’s best.

They see miracles on every trip — sight is restored, cleft palates are repaired and children hear for the first time.

For medical students the constant working with patients is a valuable and enriching experience that cannot be duplicated in the States.

For volunteers it’s the opportunity to assist in numerous ways — nurses, translators, builders — anyone willing to lead a helping hand can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Ben urges people to “help Flying Doctors of Mercy by making a donation or joining us for an adventure of a lifetime.

“You can change people’s lives for the better. Join us. You’ll come home feeling better. I do. It’s been one of the most gratifying experiences in my life. I come home feeling great about myself and walking just a little bit taller.”

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