Meet the Missionaries

The first in a series about some of our missionaries. Learn how they were able to help and how the missions have changed their lives.

Michael Brezinsky, MD

Occupation: Physician
Chapter: Denver

How would you describe your volunteer experience at HHMM?

It has truly been a life changing experience for me. 

How long have you been volunteering with HHMM?

8 years

What is it that motivates you to keep volunteering with HHMM?

I am motivated by the opportunity to serve Christ by helping others. I always return from the missions with a renewed energy.

What has been your favorite HHMM moment or story during your time of serving with us?

On a medical mission to San Juan Sacatapequez, Guatemala in October, 2007, I believe that God placed us there for a very specific reason. We were set up in a remote clinic in the hills that was staffed at night and on the weekends by medical students from the University in Guatemala City. It was a Sunday afternoon and while we were on a spiritual retreat at the church down the street, a pregnant woman presented in labor. She was not progressing and there were significant problems with the baby with hypoxia. The medial students anticipated that the baby was going to die. Fortunately, the students came and grabbed Dr. Mary Vader, a pediatrician who was a mission participant. Dr. Vader was able to deliver the baby, intubate the baby, and resuscitate the baby. She saved the baby’s life. The baby was then transferred to the University Hospital and made a full recovery. Had Dr. Vader and Helping Hands not been present, the baby would have died. I believe that God placed us there for that reason. After this event which took place at the very beginning of the mission, the rest was gravy. It truly was a miracle.

Mark Knabel, MD

A chance meeting introduced Mark Knabel to the work that would change his life. It was the year 2000, and Knabel had taken his family to Rome for the Great Jubilee, a Catholic celebration of faith and forgiveness. There he met a Lupita Assad, a nurse organizing medical mission trips to poor communities around the world.

“I happened to run into her among three million people,” recalls Knabel, a Sheboygan, Wis., dermatologist and 1979 University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine graduate. “I have to think there was some divine intervention involved.”

That sense of purpose has driven Knabel’s subsequent work with Helping Hands Medical Missions in Cotija, Mexico, a community of about 20,000 where volunteers have spent nearly a decade building a clinic, recruiting doctors, providing free health care, and reinvigorating both their professional calling and their personal faith.

“It’s almost like I actually have a practice down there—whenever I’m in Cotija, I see people I’ve treated over the past seven years,” Knabel says. He’s currently preparing for his 10th mission trip in late May.

Knabel wants young people to share in the experience. In 2005, he and his wife created the Helping Hands Medical Missions Scholarship through the Mark and Mary Knabel Charitable Trust to send UI medical students and undergraduates from Loras College in Dubuque on weeklong trips to Cotija.

One of those students is Karina Silva, a second-year medical student who joined the mission in 2007 and spent an additional month working with local physicians. The trip held special importance for her, since Cotija is her hometown.

“When I was growing up there, a visiting mission group from Texas helped get me interested in medicine,” says Silva, who moved with her family to California at age 15. “Getting to go back as a medical student was amazing and fulfilling.”

A Cotija mission entails a packed schedule of clinic days in town, trips to remote neighboring villages, and evening continuing education sessions that feature lively discussion of Catholic perspectives on bioethics. The visiting volunteers work alongside local doctors, sometimes sharing new procedures or research findings.

For Silva, perhaps the most profound moment of the trip was treating her own grandfather, who’d been injured in a fall. But she also got to explore the role of faith in her life and the lives of her patients.

The evening before they begin seeing patients, Helping Hands volunteers go door to door spreading word about their clinic and offering to pray with residents. Silva feared she’d find this kind of evangelism awkward or intrusive.

“I had it totally wrong,” she says. “People actually expected and asked for us to visit. I was approached by a classmate’s mom who wanted to be sure we’d stop by her house.”

Helping Hands welcomes volunteers from any religion and doesn’t require participation in mass or prayer, but its dedication to melding spirituality and service is clear. Knabel says the experience reveals how faith can enrich the doctor-patient relationship—a lesson he puts into practice back home.

“I’ve become much more involved in caring for the whole person, and sometimes that means joining patients in their prayer lives,” he says. “I’ve learned that some patients are looking for that.”

Knabel knows firsthand how mission work can inspire budding doctors and seasoned physicians alike. His children Anne, Peter, and Daniel have accompanied him to Cotija on trips that encouraged Knabel’s sons to study medicine. Anne and Daniel will join him again on this year's mission.

For experienced physicians, the missions offer a rare chance to care for patients without the distraction of paperwork, insurance regulations, and other bureaucratic hassles. “You bring a sense of service home with you,” says Knabel, whose practice and teaching in Wisconsin focus on surgical dermatology. “It’s changed my view of medicine.”

Through their commitment to Cotija, Knabel and colleagues have made a lasting impact on the city’s health care infrastructure. Before long, the Helping Hands teams may find it’s time to shift their focus to needier communities, but Knabel says his connection to Cotija and its people won’t be broken.

“Cotija will always be a special place for me, just like my hometown,” he says. “Places like this become part of you.”

Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tim Schoon; Additional photos used with permission by Helping Hands Medical Missions

Brian Regan

Manaus, Brazil 2008

My first mission WOW! 4 hours down the Amazon and 2 hours the Aribe rivers, pulling boat up to villages, dropping the plank (literally) and providing the only medical and Spiritual attention (Mass/Reconciliation) in a year. Words can't describe the poverty as well as the natives appreciation of our being there. Work, prayer, retreat from dawn to dusk, living, eating, sleeping on a river boat.

After Amazon River part of the Mission, back to Manaus Brazil. At the Catherdral there witnessed the Ordination of 3 Priests. Those present also can partake in the Celebration with families and offer Prayers and Best Wishes to Priests, touching the Hands still containing the oinments from the Mass. The following day one of the newly ordained Priests said his first Mass at the Benedictine Nun Retreat Center we were staying . One could feel God's graces pouring forth during the Mass. The first mission is indelible though subsequent mssions have proved equally rewarding.

Manaus Brazil 2009

"What A Difference A Year Makes" is quite the understatement. The worse rains in over a hundred years. The boat got lost because all the villages and markers were UNDER WATER. Parts of the villages visited the year before were covered by the expanded overflowing river. At one Church location which was a the top of village had 3 inches of water. This did not deter Mass being said and clinics being set up for medical attention to the natives.

We were also able to visit the Parishes of 2 of the 3 Priests Ordained the prior year.

The Priest that said his first Mass for us had a pariish with the Church badly detiorated and in desparate need a power washing and painting. Our fellow missionaries took up a collection and power washed and painted the church. The Parishoners were literally in disbelief that this was being done for them. Needless to say the Priest had been praying for this understanding God's Goodness and his Providence to allow up to respond in kind to his first mass being said for us.

Fr. James Perez, LC​​

Last year was my first medical mission. During the mission I experience how the Holy Spirit was working in a very special way in the souls of the doctors, nurses and volunteers. Whenever we forget about ourselves, our comforts and give to others we experience the power of true Love. During the days of the mission we could hear the words of our Lord: “I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you attended my needs…” YES! We went to the mission to serve others but at the end of the mission we all realized that we were the ones who benefited the most. We were the ones that were fed with a food that last forever. The people in Salvador were a beautiful medicine for all of us.

Ana Caballero

Why in the world would you skip school, spend money, and waste your time going to somewhere with no internet connection, no malls, and no friends just to help strangers?‖ Wow, harsh question. But yes, someone actually asked me this. Granted, I am skipping classes, yes I am spending money, and I am spending time to help serve those who I don‘t even know.

But why?

My name is Ana Caballero, a college student, volunteer, athlete, and part-time worker. Needless to say, I get caught up with day to day living but thankfully I had a wakeup call. One day, my father asked me to join him on a Medical Missionary Trip to Mexico. Without looking at my assignment notebook or work schedule, I said YES!

Since I can remember, my parents have instilled the importance of giving back to the world by using the talents that God has graciously bestowed upon me.

I try to live my life by my favorite passage in the Bible: the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-10 (the Beatitudes). These eight verses are a straightforward formula on how to seek Christ, know Christ, and become Christ. And the reason why I love doing service work is because of the fact that I know I have tried to improve this world. I can‘t cure cancer but I can put a smile on a face. There is something so contagious about giving back to the community, but I am not here to blab about myself, I am here to send forth the message that great things are happening in this troubled world.

My bags are half packed, my plane ticket purchased, and my heart ready to serve. I encourage all families to take time to understand the importance of service work. Go ahead and put your faith into action, it is easy and fun.

God only has our hands on the earth, so do good. Use your freedom to inspire and fill others with happiness and joy. I was told once that what is in our hearts is who we are.

So let me ask you, who are you?

Upcoming Missions

Mexico, Chiapas   
March 9-17, 2018       

Mexico, Chiapas   
San Cristobal
June 1-9, 2018  

Africa, Ghana
June 15-24, 2018     

October 3-11, 2018-NEW                                           

El Salvador   
San Salvador
October 26-Nov. 3, 2018

El Salvador
Santiago Texacuangos
Nov. 2-10, 2018

Santo Tomas Milpas Altas
November 9-17, 2018 

February 14-23, 2019 

 El Salvador
March 15-23, 2019