PENDLETON - The Micronesian island of Yap is about as primitive as it gets with thatched roofs, stone money, grass skirts, loincloths and only the most basic of health care services.
Pendleton surgeon Terry Wigley was part of a medical team of doctors, dentists and other medical professionals who recently returned from Yap. During the two-week clinic, they treated hundreds of islanders who lined up for medical care.
One gentleman rode in his canoe 500 miles to see us," Wigley said.
Wigley said the medical team faced some challenging surgeries.
"That surprised me the most," he said. "We didn't see any easy cases - these were all really tough."
Wigley's team saw around 200 patients suffering from ear, nose and throat problems and performed 40 surgeries. The surgeons rebuilt inner ears, drilled out infected bone and removed tumors and tonsils. The two weeks went by in a blur of people and procedures.
"We had to turn people away - we just didn't have the time to help them all," Wigley said.
Canvasback Missions sponsored the trip. The faith-based organization is named after a 71-foot, aluminum-hulled catamaran dubbed Canvasback that once delivered medical, dental and eye care to remote islands.
The organization's mission has expanded since the vessel was launched in 1986. Now, teams of specialists fly to a variety of remote locations to perform surgery and other medical procedures.
The dentists on the team treated people whose mouths were blackened from eating Betel nuts. The green nuts, which grow on palm trees, cause a mild euphoria and are chewed by most of the islanders, young and old.
"The Betel nut just destroys their teeth," Wigley said. "They cut it in half and add lime powder."
The dry coral lime is the consistency of sand, Wigley said, and is used to roughen up the mouth and increase absorption. The Betel nuts turn a chewer's lips and gums bright red. Wigley said the nuts cause oral cancer and a host of other dental problems.
"The dentists - they were overwhelmed," he said. "Teeth were so loose, you could just pull them out with your fingers."
Wigley's wife Marlene and daughter Olivia accompanied him on the trip. Both helped with checking in patients and taking vital signs. Olivia, 16, scrubbed in with the team and assisted, performing like a medical student, said her dad.
"It was an eye-opening experience for her," Wigley said. "She'd never been to a culture as primitive as this - she was quite struck by how poor these people were, yet how happy."
The trip was like a journey back in time. Islanders still use stone money, currency that was rated on some exchange charts until several years ago.
"These people embrace their old ways," he said. "They're not allowing themselves to Americanize as much as other countries."
The team included Walla Walla ear, nose and throat doctor, Glyn Marsh, Marsh's wife Rachel, a nurse, operating room nurse Bruce Curnuck of St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla and several others. The team brought its own supplies.
"St. Anthony and St. Mary (hospitals) both gave thousands of dollars of equipment and supplies and basically sponsored Glyn and I to go," Wigley said.
Four companies - Cardinal Health, Map International, Stryker and Medtronic - donated equipment and medications.
Wigley's team spent a little time away from the hospital, donning scuba tanks and heading for the reefs. During their dives, they found giant manta rays swimming in the warm currents of the deep.
"The scuba diving there is amazing," Wigley said. "It is rated number three for tropical dives in the world."
But most of the time, they kept busy diagnosing, anesthetizing, cutting and sewing.
Wigley said his faith is one reason he will continue to make trips like this. He and his colleagues often prayed with patients before their surgeries.
"We're so blessed here," he said, "and I'm in a profession where I can so some good."