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Violent and deadly political unrest in Nicaragua that began in April and continues to escalate has prompted Gundersen Global Partners to suspend its volunteer medical trips there until conditions are safe.

However, even after the organization canceled a trip to the Central American nation in June and one scheduled for October, its leaders and volunteers are doubling down on keeping their helpline active — at least financially. A fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 22 at JavaVino in La Crosse has a target of $6,000 to be added to the $6,000 Global Partners had budgeted for the trips.

“It leaves us so saddened,” Global Partners director Liz Arnold said. “We’ve invested so much in human and financial resources, it’s disappointing to not be able to continue.”

But the safety of the volunteers is paramount, and the deaths of more than 400 people in violence between demonstrators and pro-government security forces since spring would make the mercy missions too perilous, Arnold said Friday.

News reports Friday indicated that conditions in Nicaragua range from the precipice of civil war to the verge of total collapse as opposition forces press to oust the husband-wife team of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo from office.

“People who were on the brink of poverty very likely will be back in poverty,” she said, noting that the loss of jobs must be devastating. The violence has quashed the tourism economy the country depends on.

“Our best hope for returning was for early elections,” which might have been possible if the voting stayed on track for October 2019, as previously scheduled, she said.

But Ortega postponed the elections, which now may not take place until October 2021, she said.

“We fully intend to return when it is safe but, in the interim, we don’t want what we have accomplished to fade,” she said.

Since 2010, when Global Partners began its mission to Nicaragua, 242 volunteers have gone there in 30 teams, providing medical care ranging from basic health care to complicated surgeries.

Global Partners, a program of the Gundersen Medical Foundation that depends on donations and volunteers, “strives to remain apolitical,” Arnold said.

“Our tangible response is to provide food, water” and other staples, which Global Partners will do by sending the $12,000 total raised to its trusted partners in the country of 6.3 million, Arnold said.

The money is to go to the following partners:

  • $6,000 to Rayo de Sol to provide primary care clinics three days a week for communities in the Matagalpa Region.
  • $3,000 to Rainbow Network to provide medications to rural posts in the San Ramon area.
  • $3,000 for additional primary care and dental services in north-central Nicaragua. That donation will go to AVODEC, a grassroots nonprofit founded in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, to provide health care, sanitation, education, economic development and housing.

“We have heard that people working in government-run hospitals have been fired for treating protesters injured in demonstrations,” she said, appalled at the pressure that puts on health care workers facing an agonizing choice: “If I treat this patient, which is the right thing to do, I could lose my job, and my family would suffer.

“People are afraid to leave their homes for care, with it depending on what their political alliance might be,” Arnold said.

“I have a big hope we’ll be able to return,” said Dr. Dana Benden, a Gundersen surgeon who has made nearly 10 trips to Nicaragua primarily to collaborate with local health care workers for cancer screenings and surgical teams.

“It’s said to see the turmoil, and very difficult when we’ve made a lot of progress,” Benden said.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve done to form partnerships, and we’ve very supportive of their work in any way we can,” she said.

Benden described Global Partners’ work in Nicaragua and its two other partnerships — at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and in Yetebon, Ethiopia, Africa — as reflective of Gundersen programs in all of its locations, geared to spur the overall health of communities with sustainable initiatives.

“Our impact and our reach have been significant,” Arnold said, with efforts also including bolstering the area’s nursing education.

“We do know the landscape will be changed when we return, but the work we did is sustainable,” she said. “When we return, it may have to be focused on relief, with medical care, food and housing.”

Global Partners is a philanthropic endeavor in which 55 per cent of the volunteers are Gundersen employees who use vacation time for the trips, while 45 percent are from the larger community. The corps includes spouses and college-age students of Gundersen workers, as well as local college students, Rotarians and members of other organizations.

Northwoods International School in La Crosse is a partner, and mission trips have included teachers who have worked with Nicaraguan teachers and schools. Global Partners recently earned a grant-funded from Rotary International, with the help of the Rotary After Hours Club in La Crosse, to improve cervical cancer screenings, she said.

“We just bought the equipment to take in June, so we were at the edge of building it up,” she said.

“The Nicaraguan people are beautiful and lovely and so hard-working and passionate about improving their lives. And they are so appreciative of what we do,” Arnold said. “It’s easy to say we must return when they are so committed themselves.”

“It leaves us so saddened. We’ve invested so much in human and financial resources, it’s disappointing to not be able to continue.” Liz Arnold, Global Partners director

Mike Tighe can be reached at mtighe@lacrossetribune, or follow him on Twitter, @necktye.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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