Poulsbo woman keeps HOPE alive

Kathleen Britton, at left, volunteered the for the humanitarian program Project HOPE. - Courtesy Photo
Kathleen Britton, at left, volunteered the for the humanitarian program Project HOPE.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Working vacation is

a lesson in compassion.

POULSBO — Kathleen Britton spent much of her summer as many often do: traveling. She met new people, saw beautiful landscapes and vast skies.

But that’s about where the similarities end.

On Sept. 4 Britton returned to Poulsbo after five and a half weeks abroad, living on a U.S. Navy ship in the waters off Southeast Asia. Instead of jetting away in the name of relaxation, Britton left home behind in the name of Project HOPE. And instead of sleeping late, enjoying waking up to a golden morning sun, Britton rose to meet the needs of more than 1,000 people each day. She and the Project HOPE team visited citizens of countries with housing and infrastructure far from plush, and places that see medical help arrive just once a year. It was hot and sticky, and at times dangerous, and she already has plans to do it again.

If you offer it,

they will come.

Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) was first conceived in 1958 as a way to develop friendly relationships with different cultures through the dissemination of medical knowledge and treatment. According to its Web site — — it now works in 36 countries. It’s mission: to achieve sustainable advances in health care around the globe.

The organization has teamed with the Navy and put an old oil tanker to use; the USNS Mercy now serves as a hospital ship outfitted with surgery suites and is capable of sleeping 1,000 patients.

“The idea behind the USNS Mercy is really to show the rest of the world that the U.S. cares about their welfare,” Britton said.

Living on and traveling via the Mercy, Britton and her 14 fellow Project HOPE team members — sometimes accompanied by armed sailors in their more dangerous locales — set up clinics in schools and churches in and around Port Moseby, Papua New Guinea and Chuuk (formerly Truk) in Micronesia. Initially meant to work as a nurse midwife, Britton instead filled the greater nurse practitioner need. She worked alongside other nurses, doctors, dentists and opticians. Even veterinarians travel with Project HOPE.

A professional in the health care industry for more than two decades who now teaches courses in the field, Britton said despite her experience this required a mindset of a different kind.

She described communities in which homes are made of rusted tin sheets, remnants from World War II. They are propped on stilts, without running water or electricity, and often lacking sanitary sewer disposal. While the wealthy can travel to Australia or Hawaii for health service, many others work as subsistence farmers, the women carrying loads of water and the men firewood each day. Most of them have back, neck and shoulder problems but no access to pain relievers.

“Lots of skinny dogs,” Britton recounted. “Very poor, very poor.”

On some islands in Micronesia, health care hardly exists.

“If you had a heart attack on that island, that was your day to die,” she said.

Beginning at midnight 1,000 people — sometimes as many as 2,000 — would form a line outside a clinic site, awaiting checkups and medicine their own health care system can’t offer. Those in a bad enough way were taken to the Mercy.

Britton said skin diseases, parasites, diabetes (20 percent of the population is inflicted), heart and asthma problems and cancer were seen and treated as well as possible. Project HOPE teams can offer enough medicine to a person to last them a month. Nearly each day, the clinics ran out of their medicinal allotments.

Engineers also travel with Project HOPE, and build or repair schools, equipment and sewage systems where they are needed.

Women wear mu’umu’us there, Britton said, with kitchen towels around their necks to keep back the humid sweat. They brought their children, and were friendly and welcoming, offering gifts of woven purses for the help.

“They were so grateful for everything we could do for them,” she said.

And there were stairs, and stairs, and stairs.

Britton is no rookie to serving on overseas missions: She’s offered her expertise in Mozambique, Laos and Vietnam. Still, new to her was the experience of living aboard the Mercy, where she slept on a bunk, shared a room with seven others and pilgrimaged the large flights of stairs to and from destinations. There were 100 steps from the library to the galley alone, she said.

“It was very interesting and very different,” she added. “All day long it was up and down stairs. It was like being on a Stairmaster the entire time.”

Project HOPE team members span the ages of 25-70. At 62, Britton said she imagined she’d be the oldest on the trip, though it turns out she wasn’t.

But aside from building up her gastrocnemii and learning to love Navy food, the challenges found on the shores of Papua New Guinea and Micronesia were those she’d faced before.

“Always the greatest challenge in any work like this is to know we could save the person’s life if they were here (in the U.S.), or if you had more money there,” Britton said. “You know what’s going to happen to these people and it wouldn’t happen here, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

It’s a fact understood on both sides of the examining table: the patients, too, understand there are surgeries and technologies beyond the capabilities of the health service they receive.

“They’re not angry about it, that’s just the way it is,” Britton said.

It’s given her a greater gratitude for what is available in the states, a place where birth plans consist of well-placed candles and digital cameras to capture the moment, as opposed to simple survival. It’s a gratitude worth getting, and Britton said volunteering overseas comes in all various forms. Simply Google it.

Britton herself is planning her next mission with Project HOPE, this one to Gambia.

“More people are able to volunteer than they know. ... There’s always jobs to do,” she said. “It will change the lives of the people who go.”

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