SIERRA LEONE — A trying week had just ended and Dr. Robert Hamilton was ready to go home.
The trip to Sierra Leone had been an overwhelming experience to the small team of volunteer American doctors and nurses led by the Santa Monica pediatrician to the war-torn country, fully expecting devastation following a more than decade long civil conflict but nevertheless surprised by the level of poverty and illnesses among its citizens.
After closing the clinic and seeing the last of more than 1,000 patients who came to seek the Lighthouse Medical Mission, Hamilton got in a taxi to head to the airport, stopped by a woman who began desperately pounding on the window, lifting her child and pointing to a large abscess on their leg.
“I looked at this and thought oh my gosh,” Hamilton recalls of his first trip to Sierra Leone in 2001. “The airplane was going and I had to leave the country.
“I felt so impotent at that moment to do anything.”
The moment stuck with Hamilton over the years and gave him reason to return to the small African country, serving as motivation to help cure a nation that for about 11 years suffered through a civil war that left more than 50,000 people dead.
“The children all had fevers, the kids all had worms because of the infrastructure,” he said. “There was no fresh water, no medical care, nothing.”
The Lighthouse Medical Missions, which is affiliated with the Lighthouse Church on 20th Street and Wilshire Boulevard, has since taken eight trips to Sierra Leone, most recently in April with a team of about 50 doctors and non-medical staff, almost all of whom were volunteers and paid their own air fare. The doctors have been to Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A trip to The Gambia, a small nation in Western Africa, is planned for October and a team will be dispatched to Sierra Leone next year.
To pay for the two trips, each of which costs about $50,000, the Lighthouse Medical Missions will hold its inaugural Walk to Africa fundraiser on June 27, asking participants to walk an 8-mile-route around Santa Monica starting at Crescent Bay Park.
Hamilton said he expects about 1,000 people to turn out for the event, which will feature celebrity appearances, including Lamar Odom from the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We’re doing a very healthy inspirational good green event that is going to benefit a country,” he said. “I think we have all the elements for a wonderful event.”
Aside from providing medical attention, the Lighthouse team has also built schools and constructed water projects, hoping to rebuild the infrastructure. They also offer religious services.
Dr. Albert Phillips of Saint John’s Health Center has been to Sierra Leone four times, having previously went on medical missions to Central America with Hamilton years before.
He practices medicine differently than in the United States because there are fewer resources available and the diseases are typically further advanced.
“It was a shock to see the amount of suffering the people undergo in the country where there are under 100 doctors,” he said. “Essentially, the people have no healthcare.”
But members of past teams said that conditions in Sierra Leone have improved.
Harrison Sommer, an associate pastor at Lighthouse Church, went on the first trip in 2001 when the country was still on the fringe of civil war, seeing armed guards and UN vehicles throughout.
“There was a feeling of unrest yet underlying relief because it looked like the war was coming to an end,” Sommer said.
In the most recent trip, the team had multiple meetings with the United States ambassador and even met with the president of the country, Ernest Bai Koroma.
“There have been buildings built, clinics and schools and there have been water projects that provide tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water,” Sommer said. “The effect of consistency of really going back over the years is something we’re beginning to see.”