PROVO—Five years ago, when Tom Dickinson took a flight to the Dominican Republic, it was to satisfy his wife and also hopefully help a few villagers feel better.
Little did the gastrointestinal doctor from Provo know how good it was going to make him feel.
For years, Dickinson’s wife had urged him to accompany her on one of what he calls “her humanitarian trips.” Bonnie Dickinson is a kind of 21st century Florence Nightingale, a nurse with a lamp. For years he had watched her help with this project and that.
Finally, in the summer of 2013, when Tom Dickinson heard of her plans to go for a week with a group called Lift A Life to the Dominican Republic, he said fine, I’ll go. He packed his black bag with the requisite supplies he felt would be useful and joined a small group that included dentists, nurses, physicians assistants and Tom — he was the only doctor — to spend a week providing volunteer health care.
For seven straight days, in the town of Bayaguana, 30 miles outside the capital of Santo Domingo, they saw patients by the hundreds. A man came in with a case of scabies so bad he couldn’t work. A little medicine took care of that. Another came in with a severed Achilles tendon. Surgery repaired that. Another had heart failure. He was rushed to Santo Domingo for surgery.
On and on it went; in a place where the average daily expenditure is $1.65 a day, people who live in 200-square-foot houses with dirt floors came in with low expectations and came out, thanks to modern medicine most Americans take for granted, healed.
“The people live in abject poverty,” Dickinson marvels, “but they are so happy. And so grateful.
“It was so impactful for me. It changed my life.”
He realized two things on that trip. One was that these people didn’t need a clinic for a week, they needed a clinic every week.
Two was that he needed to come back and help make that happen.
He met two like-minded people on the trip who shared his conviction. One was a schoolteacher from Gunnison — “a force of nature” Dickinson calls her — named Melissa Judy. The other was a car salesman named Jose Ubiera, who grew up in the Dominican Republic until his family made their way to America for a better life and Jose discovered a talent for convincing people they needed a new Nissan.
Melissa, Jose and Tom put their heads together. They organized a foundation they called Community of Hope International (communityofhopeint.org) and between the three of them were able to solicit enough funding support to get it started.
Within the year they were back, starting construction on a 7,000-square-foot medical clinic in Bayaguana — built on Jose’s grandfather’s farm — and in addition to that, thanks to help from another foundation called Sunshine Heroes, a vocational school next door.
Then they started hiring Dominicans to run everything.
Dr. Tom, teacher Melissa and car salesman Jose understood that their enterprise needed to be part of the community, not an American handout. The two doctors, the two dentists and the nine staffers who manage the clinic, they are all natives. Jose left his job at Tim Dahle Nissan to become the CEO.
They average 50 patients a day at the clinic, which boasts a pharmacy, a lab, all the necessary dental equipment and an emergency room. All services are available at the reasonable cost of free.
Bayaguana has become Dickinson’s home away from home. He goes there every two or three months and twice a year leads weeklong trips for volunteers, some of whom remind him of himself five years ago.
Be careful, he cautions them.
Dickinson, 69, quotes Leo Rosten, who said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy — but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”2 comments on this story
“To me,” Dickinson says, “a life fulfilled is where you exercise your resources, your talents and abilities on behalf of those in need. Doing this work, along with medicine — and I love medicine, I never want to retire — have in a very selfish way given me a very fulfilling life.
“It has been such a rich endeavor,” he muses. “I was just trying to please my wife; get her off my back. I would do one trip and then I’d never have to do another humanitarian trip as long as I live. …”