By Mary Hall,

It’s not often that you hear about a doctor who accepts an orange as “payment” for services so as not to insult the payor.  In actuality, the services are free, and the orange is just one way a patient or patient’s family shows their gratitude for the doctor’s help.

Michigan Helps Medical Team, a non-profit group based in Jackson, Michigan, is a group of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals as well as construction workers, cooks, interpreters and those with a bevy of other skills.  The team works under the umbrella of Dallas, Texas based Helps International.


According to Dr. Jack Wagoner, an anesthesiologist in Washtenaw County who travels and works with the group, once a year in early February, they travel to Guatemala to provide free medical care to the Mayan population living in the mountains.  In these areas, where the annual income is roughly $200.00, there is no medical care available.  The MI Helps Team provides everything from a walk-in medical clinic to surgical intervention for conditions such as cleft lip, club foot, strabismus (crossed eye), etc. Families have been known to walk for days to get to the medical team in the hopes that their loved one can be helped.

The team provides surgical care for adults and children, which includes GYN, plastics, general surgery and ophthalmology. Along with the surgical services, they also provide the medical clinic and dentistry.

Outside of direct medical care, they provide what they call “environmental medicine”.  This involves those with construction skills on the team installing smoke free cook stoves in village homes.  They feel this is very important, because without these new stoves, villagers would continue to prepare food by burning wood on an open fire on the ground in a one room house.  “This practice,” reports Dr. Jack Wagoner, Team Leader for the Michigan Helps Medical Team, “has been responsible for many of the children we see as patients that require plastic surgery for burns.”

In these same homes, families get water to drink from a contaminated stream, so the construction team also provides water purification units.

Help International provides the logistics in Guatemala for the Michigan Team and other teams around the United States. Guatemala is the area of service because of the great need there, but also because they have supplies and equipment there in storage to decrease the amount of supplies they need to bring with them on each trip.

In addition, they do not rely on large non-profit organizations to provide supplies for them.  They bring their own supplies and set up their own facility upon arrival.  The drugs they need are either purchased by them or donated by companies through national organizations such as Americares or MAPS.  They are disposable supplies that cannot be reprocessed by hospitals and would otherwise be discarded.

Although they are able to cut some costs in this way, the remaining cost of the trip for the entire team is $250,000.00 for air fare, transportation, lodging, travel insurance, food and medical supplies.  Team members are asked to pay $2300.00 per person but stipends are offered when available. For example, it is difficult to ask nurses to give up ten days of vacation and pay the fee, so they are always searching for donations to help defray costs for individuals and to purchase supplies and equipment.   They are a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and anyone who donates to their team will receive a letter for the IRS acknowledging that donation.  Next year, it is estimated that only 10% of the Team’s cost will be provided by donations; the rest must be paid by the Team members.  Anyone wanting to donate can do so via Pay Pal by going to the Team’s web site at  If you are a corporation wanting to donate, contact Dr. Jack Wagoner at .  More Information about donating can be found on th3eir web site page at .

When asked why he does it, why he goes to Guatemala year after year to help people, Dr. Wagoner responds, “In some ways it is a selfish motivation because in the end I think I get more out of it for my own life than I give.  It is important to purchase supplies and equipment.

One might wonder what makes a man like Dr. Wagoner want to not only travel to Guatemala to help the very poor families there, but to return, year after year, during his own vacation time and on his own dime.  Dr. Wagoner has the added work of leading the team and getting it all organized.  When asked why he does it, he replied, “What inspires me to go on these missions is multifactorial.  For me to give other health care staff an opportunity to be a part of this sharing.  It is very rewarding to provide care for people that are very appreciative for the free care we give them.  The feeling one gets is almost indescribable.  When you can see the tear-filled eyes of a mother who had just had her child’s cleft lip or strabismus repaired and listen to her thank you for helping her to avoid for her child what most likely could have been, as she tells you, a life of discrimination, our endeavor allows us a way to share our skills so she can share her own love and protection with her child.”

When asked about long-term goals, Dr. Wagoner stated, “My own personal long-term goal would be to start a hospital in one of those underserved areas much like what has been done by the Clinton Foundation in Haiti that is self-sufficient, where teams like ours can come from the United States to provide free care and training.”

Some of Michigan Medical Help Team’s more memorable patients include the following as relayed by Dr. Jack Wagoner:

“In the middle of the week during one of our missions a man arrived at the hospital gate with his five year- old daughter who had a cleft lip.  They arrived with no luggage or food even though they had been traveling for 2 days to reach us.  Their only possession was a plastic gallon bottle tied with rope to the man’s pants. The girls school teacher had heard we may be in a certain town, so the man brought his daughter not knowing for sure if he could find us. They walked all day to get to a bus and took a bus all day to get to our hospital and indeed we were where the teacher had said he would find us.  I knew they were both hungry, but the man refused food until I realized that his refusal was from not having money.  He spoke a local Mayan language and very little Spanish,” said Wagoner. But I made him realize the food was free through gestures and that I was going to throw the food away otherwise.  We fixed his daughter’s lip.  Seeing the smile on his face is something I will never forget.

It was memorable to see two -year-old twins with congenital cataracts reach out and touch red balloons that they had felt before but had never seen, and to watch the tears of joy on their parents’ faces.

It was memorable to visit the home of a five-year-old girl whose club foot we had repaired the previous year. Her home consisted of one room with a dirt floor and a tin roof that housed a family of five.  Prior to her surgery, Rosa had never walked as her parents had carried her everywhere.  At our visit one year later, she was now walking.

It was memorable to witness a fifteen-year-old girl ask for a mirror in recovery to see her eye after strabismus surgery.  She started crying as she looked in the mirror saying she could now date and be more accepted at school.

It was memorable to have a patient bring me a thank you card with pictures cut out of magazines because they did not have a way to buy a fancy Hallmark card buy they wanted to say thanks in the only way available to them.

It was memorable to see a man of approximately 80 years of age bring you a sack or oranges he picked to say thank you.”

The sheer number of patients that this team can help is mind-blowing.  Last year, they performed 180 surgical procedures,85 dental procedures and saw 1,236 patients in clinic, and they are always looking to add more people to their team so they can help even more people on upcoming trips.

They have begun their recruiting (it starts In July for the following February) for the February 2019 Team. The 2019 Team will go for ten days, and the trip will run February 2-13, 2019.  They send out emails to all past participants (a total of around 800) and work with those who respond to their emails to set up the next team. They need nurses, scrub techs, anesthesiologists, CRNA’s, internists, family practice or emergency room physicians and surgeons.  They also need cooks, translators and people to build cooking stoves.  Family members of medical staff over the age of 16 are welcome to facilitate family involvement as they feel the experience is just as important to the team members and families that go on the team as it is to their patients.   Their motto is “Changing Lives…The life you change may be your own. If you’d like to join this Team, contact Dr. Jack Wagoner via email at .