FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Aug. 11, 2016) -- The spouse of a 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Soldier followed a calling to help others last month by taking a 10-day voluntary medical trip to South Africa with the International Medical Relief organization.
A native of Barnum, Minn., Abby Giersdorf is a licensed practical nurse who is certified in phlebotomy and hemodialysis patient care. In addition to serving as family readiness group leader at 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th CAB, and co-fundraising chair for the North Country Spouses Club at Fort Drum, Giersdorf is a devoted military wife and mother to two young boys.
Giersdorf said she wanted to continue nursing without sacrificing too much of her family time. She applied for a short volunteering opportunity with the International Medical Relief organization last December.
Her husband, 1st Lt. Matthew Giersdorf, who serves as executive officer for A Company, 277th ASB, said this was something his wife has wanted to do since she first earned her nursing degree. After getting accepted by IMR in February, the Giersdorfs had to find the perfect balance between his work schedule, the available IMR volunteer locations and their sons' school schedules. Shortly after that, they decided the trip to South Africa would best fit the Family's needs.
Eventually, the couple sat down with their boys, Family Members and friends and explained where she was going. Giersdorf flew her sons to Minnesota to stay with her husband's parents for the summer.
"As a nurse, it's hard to find medical missions that are short-term, because I can't leave my kids for six months," she said. "So, in that sense, IMR makes it easy for people like me to go on a two-week or week-long trip to different parts of the world in order to try to provide medical care like we have in the United States."
International Medical Relief, a nonprofit organization based out of Loveland, Colo., provides medical, dental and surgical care to people in underprivileged areas around the world where health care is often limited or too difficult to obtain.
All recruits, including medical professionals as well as nonmedical volunteers, go through a selection process based on their qualifications. Upon acceptance to IMR, the recruits are then assigned to a specific team for the next week or two, based on the needs of the country they will assist.
According to Giersdorf, this was the first time IMR had sent a medical team to South Africa -- an unusually small one at that.
"We only had nine members, so we were limited in what we could do," she said. "However, everybody was so versed in their jobs that it really wasn't too much of an issue."
The South Africa IMR team consisted of medical professionals who specialized in such treatment areas as trauma, pediatric care and internal medicine, to name a few. Despite the small team, Giersdorf and her companions were able to successfully treat more than 700 patients in approximately six and a half clinical days.
"Most of the care we provided was for simple things," Giersdorf said. "Coughs, colds, respiratory infections, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and prenatal care. We also did some maintenance tasks."
The medical mission required Giersdorf and her team to set up mobile clinics in eight different townships throughout South Africa. The first day started in the township of Masibambisane Centre, followed by Mariann-ridge, Lamontville, Addington, Phoenix and Noodsberg, and ended on day eight in the township of Applesboch.
While the team was in South Africa, the mobile clinics were open to anyone who wanted care.
"If they came to the mobile clinic, we treated them," Giersdorf said.
In addition to providing medical care, team members distributed toiletries and conducted community health education classes. In fact, Giersdorf said she found herself extremely drawn to the education portion because of the lasting effects it could have on the patients.
"When we come in and do medical care, people are like 'well you treated the cough, now what?'" she said. "That's where community education comes in. We are able to teach them how to do lasting things, like, 'don't cook inside without proper ventilation' or 'wash your hands with soap and water to prevent getting sick.'"
"It's the simple things," she added.
Shauna King, president of International Medical Relief, had nothing but positive things to say about Giersdorf's time with the organization.
"We are so thankful for the support of generous humanitarians like Abby, who dedicate their time to volunteer for the service of others," she said. "(Abby) is a very well-respected volunteer with International Medical Relief who helped provide medical care to refugees from the Congo, Burundi and other townships and communities where health care services are unavailable."
If another opportunity to participate in a new mission with IMR arose, Giersdorf said she would not hesitate to offer her services again, immediately reverting back to her favorite part of the experience.
"Being able to give them something, education-wise, that they are able to take with them and bring home and teach to all their family members and communities so they can make their day-to-day (living) better is really all I want," Giersdorf said. "That's what I try to do here, with the FRG and all the volunteer positions on post, to try to make day-to-day life better for others."