Nov. 3, 2015

by Renee Peggs

For three members of the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team, a week in Jamaica sounded like a pretty great way to wrap up the 2014-15 academic year. What they experienced on that trip changed their lives.

Juniors Patrick Connolly (New Canaan, Connecticut), Mark Mishu (Knoxville, Tennessee), and Mark Gormley (Minneapolis, Minnesota) traveled in June with Gormley’s father to Kingston, Jamaica, to take part in a medical mission trip.

“My initial motivation was just to spend a week with my buddies,” Connolly confesses. “I really had no idea what it was actually going to be like.”

What it was like was hard work and less-than-ideal conditions, to which, certainly, athletes on an elite NCAA Division I team are no strangers.

“It was really hot,” Gormley states, unqualifiedly. “We were at the clinic about ten hours a day. The operating rooms were air conditioned but it was not the climate control we’re used to and even there it was really hot.”

The athletes took direction from Dr. Mark Gormley, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist and 1983 Notre Dame grad, and other medical personnel at a children’s clinic run by the University of the West Indies (UWI), providing support around various assessments and procedures.

Some of their tasks included fitting orthopedic braces to patients and then molding them for a perfect fit, preparing simple chemical compounds which would be used for surgeries, assisting the physical therapists with charting, and literally helping some of the patients perform movements to determine individual treatment protocols.

“I’m sure as far as the boys were concerned they were doing menial tasks, but I told them it’s not like we were going to let them cut and sew,” laughs Dr. Gormley.

Eight years ago, Dr. Gormley met the Jamaican ambassador to the United States, the Jamaican Minister of Health, and the Dean of the UWI medical school, who were touring the Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare hospital where he works in St. Paul, Minnesota. A month later, Dr. Gormley received an invitation from the Organization for the Strategic Development of Jamaica to visit one of the children’s clinics in Kingston.

His professional specialty is the treatment of children with disabilities: cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord and brain injuries, among others. In him, the Jamaican entourage recognized a valuable asset.

“They don’t have any services down there for children with disabilities,” Dr. Gormley explains. “Their physicians are extremely well trained, they just don’t have the resources to do everything they need to do for these kids.”

Time constraints are a significant hindrance, and the number of children in need of services far exceeds the capacity of available medical personnel. While health care is offered to Jamaican citizens free of charge through government subsidy, hospitals and clinics are severely under-funded. Even if appropriate equipment and medicines become available, monetary limitations prevent doctors and surgeons in Jamaica from receiving adequate training in operative protocol and administration of the medicines.

“The goal of our trips,” Dr. Gormley elucidates, “is to teach the Jamaicans to be self-sufficient and self-funded. It’s different than some other medical mission trips where perhaps clinics are set up to do cleft palette surgeries, or treat maladies that can be cured or resolved with just one visit to a doctor. These children [at the clinic in Kingston] have medical needs that require ongoing attention, many follow-up visits, additional procedures and surgeries. I take a team down with me three times a year and we see a lot of the same kids each time we’re there.

“On our first few trips down there we (the team from the U.S.) were doing all the surgeries and procedures, but we also trained and mentored the physicians who staff the clinic. Now, many of their doctors are able to do these things capably themselves so we just supervise and support. Their government lottery recently allocated funds to that clinic so they are able to do some new things that previously were unavailable to them.”

He goes on to explain that part of the educational component for the Jamaican medical teams is to help them identify alternative protocols that are both effective as treatments and sustainable financially.

One of the procedures he does frequently at the hospital in St. Paul involves Botox injections.

“It’s about $700 a vial, each procedure uses two or three vials and you have to repeat the treatment three or four times a year. There’s a surgical operation we perform that costs about $30,000 to do, and requires about $10,000 a year in support and maintenance. This is routine stuff for me, I could do a dozen of these a day. But in Jamaica, it’s simply not possible given financial constraints,” Dr. Gormley says.

Instead of costly Botox, he has introduced the Jamaican physicians to Phenol, a similar substance yielding similar results. Phenol costs about $4 a vial, one vial is sufficient for each procedure and the treatment need not be repeated more than every six months.

“Phenol is much more complicated to administer than Botox, so we make sure to do really good education on that protocol for the doctors down there, but it’s something they can easily learn to do and easily acquire with the funding that is available to them,” Dr. Gormley insists. “It’s really important on both sides that they be able to function independently of us, so we’re more than happy to share our knowledge and contribute to their sustainability.”

In the operating room

In the operating room

Rhizotomy is a surgical procedure in which the spinal cord is opened so that certain nerves can be cut, mitigating muscular spasticity and allowing freedom of movement. Dr. Gormley admits that it’s complicated to do, but just as effective and much more cost-efficient than the similar surgeries he performs in the States.

“I got to be in the operating room for one of those,” Connolly shares. “They just cut this guy’s spinal cord right open. It was crazy-intense.”

Prior to undergoing any treatment or surgery at the clinic, patients are given a series of assessments in which physical therapists measure their muscular and reflexive capacities. Their ability to move in different ways – kneeling, sitting, getting up from sitting to standing, walking, balancing while kneeling or standing on one foot – is rated along a scale toward the doctors’ final determination of diagnosis and treatment.

Mark Gormley assisting a child with rehab exercises

Mark Gormley assisting a child with rehab exercises

“The physical therapists had us help the kids with these various movements and then my dad suggested we try to determine where on these different scales the rating might be,” Gormley recalls. “Not that our guess was a final diagnosis or anything. He just wanted to see if we were learning anything as we were watching and helping.”

“Interacting with the kids was the best part,” Connolly adds. “Little kids should be running around and playing, but all the ones we saw were in braces and either couldn’t walk or really struggled just to do the simplest movements. We kind of set ourselves up as their cheerleaders, encouraging them and helping them to relax as much as possible during the assessments and as they were waiting their turns. When they got done or if they were able to hold a certain pose or do a certain movement, we just went crazy cheering for them to show them how proud we were of them.

Pat Connolly assisting a child with rehab exercises

Pat Connolly assisting a child with rehab exercises

“Even though they were in tough situations, they had incredibly positive attitudes and such big smiles on their faces. That was really impressive to me. I think it’s because the kids had really good parents and good support systems. That makes a huge difference.”

Ding ding ding, who’s the big winner today?

“This is exactly the reason I wanted my son and his friends to make that trip with me,” Dr. Gormley affirms. “I want them to appreciate that there are many people out there who are not as lucky as they are. Notre Dame gives kids so much, and the athletes especially have many gifts and talents.

“As an alum, I represent Notre Dame in everything I do, and that includes teaching my children and even their friends that there’s nothing greater than being able to help others who don’t have the same gifts as they do. There’s more importance in that than a lot of the other things they have the opportunity to do as Notre Dame soccer players.”

University Vice President and Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick would agree. His intention is that the five core values of Notre Dame athletics – excellence, education, community, tradition and faith – suffuse and infuse every aspect of student-athletes’ lives, both on and off campus, both during and after their collegiate tenures.

These values, known as the Five Pillars, function dually as the core identity of and dynamic guideposts for Fighting Irish athletes and athletics personnel. As individuals and teams and offices and the department as a whole, one choice at a time leads to an orientation over a lifetime.

Though Connolly and the younger Gormley are both science/pre-professional studies majors, neither of them has yet identified a definite career path.

“I think no matter what I end up doing I will want to make sure I’m going places where they don’t have access to all the things we have here, and do things like my dad has done with his career to help others,” Gormley reflects.

Connolly agrees. “It was neat to have that experience and think about how maybe I could [volunteer and teach] like that someday if I become a doctor.”