2018 Humanitarian Award RecipientFor the past 19 years, Dr. Beth Blodgett (since 2009 known as Sister Alegria) has been providing needed medical care to the poverty-stricken inhabitants in the hills of Honduras.
“When you experience career burn out, it’s because you are expecting something from your work that you’re not getting.”
It’s wisdom that Sister Alegría, MD ’78, GME ’81 (aka Beth Blodgett), gained through personal experience. After practicing pediatrics for 11 years, specializing in children with disabilities, she made the decision to quit her job. No new job lined up, and no certain plan for the future. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was seeking, but she knew she was burnt out and needed a change.
Dr. Blodgett found what she was looking for on a medical mission trip to Honduras in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch, which caused catastrophic damage to the country. It was the first of several trips there, each trip lasting a few months. She found her place volunteering at the public health center, Centro de Salud in Limón, Colón.
In 2003, Dr. Blodgett bought seven acres of land outside of town. In 2006, she was joined by Prairie Cutting, now Sister Confianza, and together they founded the Amigas del Señor Monastery; it has been home ever since. She became a professed Methodist sister in 2009, taking the name Sister Alegría, and is now a legal resident of Honduras.
As contemplative nuns, Sisters Alegría and Confianza recognize prayer as their major job at their humble and secluded monastery, which sits atop a steep slope in the Honduran Hills. Voluntary poverty means that the sisters live simply – there is no electricity at the monastery, and their daily routine is filled with the physical labor of a life without modern appliances or other conveniences.
Once a week, the sisters travel to the clinic to volunteer, typically hitching a ride since it’s a nine mile journey round trip from the monastery.
More than half of the population lives below the poverty line by Honduran standards, so lack of access to health services a prevalent problem in Honduras. On a typical day at the clinic, Sister Alegría will see about 20 patients, ranging from a newborn with pneumonia to an elderly patient with uncontrolled diabetes.
For the majority of these patients, this clinic is life-saving. The closest government hospital is two hours away by bus, and the round trip bus fare for one person is the equivalent of a day’s wages for the average Honduran worker.
One of the biggest challenges Centro de Salud faces is lack of resources. The clinic shares government-supplied medications with two other clinics, and there never seems to be quite enough to go around. The sisters make do with what little medication and equipment they have on hand. On a visit to the United States this summer, they were thrilled to receive monetary donations that will allow them to buy laboratory equipment and materials.
The monastery supplies many of the less expensive medications for the clinic like ibuprofen, acetaminophen and diphenhydramine, which save more lives than one might realize.
Sister Alegría recalls seeing a patient with advanced pneumonia. She asked the patient why she waited so long to seek care, and the patient responded that she had heard the clinic didn’t have any medicine.
“If a Honduran is making the trek to the clinic for treatment, they expect to go home with something,” Sister Alegría explains. “So even if we send them home with something as basic as ibuprofen for a fever or pain management, they are more likely to come back for additional care because they will have confidence that we have the resources to help them.”
When Sister Alegría fell ill herself in 2010, she was prescribed an expensive medication. Knowing how the expense would affect the monastery’s budget and her ability to provide medicine to her patients, she initially chose not to fill the prescription. While she was chastised by friends and family, her reasoning was simple – the positive impact that a greater quantity of less expensive medication would have on the care of her patients was more important. She now purchases the medication she needs, since without her health, she would not be able to provide much-needed care at the clinic.
Although Sister Alegría is a pediatrician by training, she serves as general practitioner at Centro de Salud by necessity. She says she chose to specialize in pediatrics because she enjoys working with children and because the pediatric faculty and fellow students she met at the Medical College of Wisconsin were “good people - honest, upright, compassionate, fair.”
“[I knew that ] I would be happy to consider myself part of this group. I still feel this way,” she says.
Sister Alegría soon found that one of the aspects of caring for children that she enjoyed – a collaborative approach to care that includes the child and his or her caregivers – translates well to her current work.
“Hondurans rarely come to appointments alone,” she explains. “There is typically a family member present who is involved in the patient’s care, so they are included in the visit and after care instruction.”
Since regular check-ups are, as Sister Alegría points out, “a wealthy-person concept,” she has the unique challenge of teaching patients and their support people who come to the clinic for sick visits about preventative care and how to be a more active participant in the management of their health. She says that this challenge is what she enjoys most about her work, particularly as it relates to women’s health.
Honduras has historically functioned with a patriarchal system, where men claim responsibility for family decisions, including reproductive health decisions. Sister Alegría is dedicated to educating women and giving them the tools they need to choose the size family they want and safeguard their health.
For example, in the United Sates, it is recommended that women wait a year to 18 months before getting pregnant again after giving birth. In Honduras, the recommendation is two years.
“Most mothers are overworked and undernourished. What’s good for mom isn’t always good for her kids, but what’s bad for mom is always bad for kids,” she says. “By giving women choices we can improve outcomes and everyone benefits.”
Each year, the Medical College of Wisconsin/Marquette Medical Alumni Association selects several alumni for its highest honors in acknowledgment of their contributions to medicine, science and the community. Sister Alegría is this year’s recipient of the Humanitarian Award, which is presented to an alumnus or alumna who throughout his or her career has demonstrated a significant humanitarian commitment in medical practice and/or volunteer activities.
While there is no doubt that Sister Alegría is deserving of this award, she is not one to seek recognition.
“You can do a lot more good in this world if you don't need credit for it,” she reminds us.
It’s a philosophy that encapsulates the humanity and values that guide Sister Alegría in her re-imagined life.
“It is very good to know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing,” she says. “I never had that before in my life. I like it. A contemplative nun does not work at the important job of changing the world. A contemplative nun does the job of letting God change her.”