Medical mission to Tonga a success, but it's just the beginning

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SALT LAKE CITY — Last July, 32 Utahns journeyed to the island of Tonga on a life-saving mission. Their goal: treat those with diabetes and teach Tongans who don't have the disease how to prevent it.

The doctors, health professionals and families involved call the mission a success, but they can't wait to go back and finish the work they've begun.

"It's an epidemic that has come, and just like a tsunami it has come to shore, taking the people without them recognizing what they have to do to save themselves," says Charles Hosea, a native of Tonga who now lives in Utah with his family. Hosea worries about the epidemic of diabetes that threatens the people of his homeland.

Dr. Annamarie Edwards is a podiatric surgeon and one of the organizers of the medical mission to Tonga to treat diabetes and teach prevention.

"The rate of diabetes that is occurring in these Polynesian islands is astounding," she said.

Right now, it's estimated about 30,000 of Tonga's 100,000 citizens have diabetes.

"And so this has a heavy impact because these folks are still at an age where they're sustaining their families," says Dr. Bill Tettelbach, a wound care and infectious disease specialist from Salt Lake City.

As a cultural advisor to the doctors' Tonga mission, Hosea stresses the importance of family.

"It's the core of everything," says Hosea's wife, Uinise.

"I think we touched them at a much deeper level, deep down in their hearts because we tied it right into the family," says Charles Hosea.

Each morning during the mission, families gathered at Liahona High School for lessons in how to avoid this preventable disease.

"It is so important to do preventive care because it will affect their economy," Edwards said.

Doctors believe it could also tear away at the fabric of the Tongan families. Dr. Rob Ferguson is a plastic reconstructive surgeon who helped to organize the medical mission.

"When we talked about a child missing a father who may have died prematurely because of diabetes or a parent who is disabled because of poorly controlled diabetes and unable to care for their children, that really hit home," he said.

After hours in the classroom and operating room, Utah doctors believe their Tongan patients are learning, "that the hospital is for healing, it's not for going there to die or lose a limb," says Tettelbach.

In fact, the sooner Tongans meet with a doctor, the more likely they are to avoid the disease altogether.

"So, I think that what we've been doing out there (in Tonga) was kind of an awareness," said Uinise Hosea. "They kind of realized, hey, carrots is good, tomatoes is good."

And exercise is good. Traditionally, people walked long distances across the island. Eleven-year-old Catherine Ferguson traveled with her parents to Tonga for the mission.

"I did the lessons, the exercise lessons to show them if they exercised then they would lose weight," Catherine said.

Sean Edwards, 18, also accompanied his mother on the mission and was rewarded by the work he did in Tonga.

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"I knew they were learning something, and I knew that it was important to them, and I'm glad they were paying attention and were energetic about it," he said.

In fact, Sean, Catherine and others on the mission who don't have medical degrees were very energetic about their project.

"All the other volunteers would go and build this home for an amputee who was also blind from the effects of diabetes," says Ferguson.

Asi Hosea was born in Tonga, his family moved when he was still an infant. Going back to the place of his birth made an impact.

"When I was able to serve these people, I was able to receive more than what I was giving back to them," says Asi Hosea.

The Tongans shared their singing, dancing, and love of culture and tradition with those on the mission: "They really touched my heart," Asi Hosea said.

And that is why this group will go back to Tonga to finish what they've started.

"Yes, we made a difference, but I think that we need to make sure that it doesn't dwindle, that it doesn't fizzle out, that it actually has a lasting impact," says Ferguson.

Asi Hosea agrees.

"I think the results were far more than we actually expected," he said.

Plans are already in the works for the group to go back to Tonga next summer.

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Sandra Olney


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