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Making Lasting Connections and Systemic Change Around the World with HVO

Dr. George Pantely, a cardiologist, and his wife Mrs. Sharon Pantely, a nurse, have spent over a decade volunteering together with HVO projects in Asia and South and Central America. They had long been interested in volunteer work, but had had difficulty finding the right organization. Many places either required too long a commitment or focused on short-term solutions. When he discovered HVO, Dr. Pantely was hopeful that he had finally found the right fit: “As I looked at the HVO site, I quickly realized that this is exactly what I was looking for. An organization that was committed to forming a long-term relationship with a site and focus on working with the local health care providers to improve their health care system through education and mentorship.”  

The Pantelys headed to Almenara Hospital in Lima, Peru in 2010 to spend a month teaching and volunteering. Dr. Pantely spent time on rounds, provided consultations, and learned about conditions he had never previously encountered. Upon request, he provided the hospital’s chief of medicine with a detailed assessment, including ways the hospital could improve care. He says, “I left Peru feeling…that I had done something that might help improve the quality of care in small ways at Almenara Hospital. And I left knowing that I wanted to continue being an HVO volunteer.” 

After a second trip to Lima the following year, the Pantelys decided to make their next trip to the HVO internal medicine project in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There, they established lasting relationships that deepened over the five trips they took from 2012 to 2020.   

Mrs. Pantely quickly developed relationships with the nurses at Sihanouk Hospital and has continued to keep in touch with many of them. Her kind and friendly presence helped Dr. Pantely communicate effectively with the nurses, who were at first hesitant to address him. Together, the Pantelys were able to organize time for Dr. Pantely to teach several sessions on cardiology to the nurses.  

On their second trip to Sihanouk, their Cambodian colleagues gave them a warm welcome: “After we arrived at the hospital in the morning for our first day, Sharon and I went up to the medical unit to join Dr. Kruy and the team for rounds. As soon as Dr. Kruy saw us, she rushed over to us, gave us both big hugs, and said, ‘You didn’t forget about us. You came back. Thank you for caring about us.’” Another memorable experience of personal connection was Dr. Pantely’s opportunity to work with two young physicians at Sihanouk on several occasions: “They were both eager to learn cardiac ultrasound which is my area of expertise in cardiology. Each time I returned, I would see how much they improved and how eager they were for any advice or tips I could give them to further improve their skills.” 

Moments like these are what drive the Pantelys to continue volunteering. Through these relationships, they are able to contribute to lasting, systemic change that supports colleagues in other parts of the world—continued support that stretches over decades. Over time, they have seen that many of the HVO project sites they have visited have developed standardized protocols for managing clinical situations, a big improvement in care that Dr. Pantely says HVO volunteers have been able to play a role in over many years.  

It isn’t all teaching—Dr. Pantely says there’s a lot to learn from volunteering: “I also learn a lot from the health care providers and patients I come into contact with. I have learned a lot about diseases that I am not familiar with. I have met some remarkable altruists and dedicated physicians that try to provide the best care to patients despite limited resources. I have met many physicians that are much smarter than I am but have not had the opportunities to reach their full potential.” 

Mrs. Pantely is a partner in her husband’s adventures and has always found ways to share her time and skills at HVO project sites. In Bhutan, she was a teacher’s helper for young school children practicing English and is still in touch with the teacher she worked with. In Peru, she assisted in the hospital daycare center, and in Guatemala she helped triage patients at outpatient clinics.  

After their assignments, the Pantelys liked to plan time for fun and relaxation. They have gone bird watching in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Bhutan, and have stopped on the way home in many southeast Asian countries and the Galapagos Islands. This year, Dr. Pantely will be returning to Nepal for a four-week assignment and they hope to return together to Cambodia later in the year.  

To future volunteers, Dr. Pantely says, “Don’t wait as long as I did to start volunteering… if you enjoy medicine, enjoy teaching young, eager physicians, enjoy meeting some remarkable colleagues in various countries who have the same goals and desires as you do, enjoy learning, can laugh at yourself when you do something embarrassing, and are willing to immerse yourself in the life of the health care givers you will be working with, you will be a good volunteer with HVO.”