When Jill Ambler, a surgical technology student, wife and mother of six, won an essay contest for an all-expense-paid trip to a tropical island, she was thrilled. Who wouldn't be?
But this wasn't the sun-soaked, margarita-sipping getaway you might imagine.
Ambler's trip, sponsored by Colorado Technical University, was a working expedition to the Philippines with International Surgical Missions, an all-volunteer group of medical personnel. With the group, Ambler (pictured foreground) spent more than 40 hours in the air to reach Allen, a rural village on the northern tip of the island of Samar.
"I have been helped throughout the years ... and I wanted to return the favor somehow, some way," she explains.
Working in a rustic, 25-bed hospital, the team completed 69 major surgeries and more than 90 minor surgeries, and helped 300-plus medical patients in four days. The group's dental clinic served another 120 to 140 patients each day.
"No running water, no heat, no toilet paper," Ambler says, describing the conditions. "There were holes in the hospital walls, dogs running outside the doorways, spiders crawling through the operating room and geckos running across the ceiling."
Safety was a concern in the conflict-torn nation, and the group had to be accompanied by guards toting automatic weapons.
"We had armed guards the entire time," says Ambler. "We not only had government guards, but they worked a truce and we had rebel guards, too."
Despite the difficult conditions, Ambler considers the trip a life-altering opportunity. "Over and over again we heard, "Thank you, thank you for saving my life.'
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."