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MARK KNABEL In Cotija, Mexico, the UI alumnus has discovered new perspectives on medicine, faith, and the link between them.

A chance meeting introduced Mark Knabel to the work that would change his life. It was the year 2000, and Knabel had taken his family to Rome for the Great Jubilee, a Catholic celebration of faith and forgiveness. There he met a Lupita Assad, a nurse organizing medical mission trips to poor communities around the world.

“I happened to run into her among three million people,” recalls Knabel, a Sheboygan, Wis., dermatologist and 1979 University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine graduate. “I have to think there was some divine intervention involved.”

Two doctors treating a patient.That sense of purpose has driven Knabel’s subsequent work with Helping Hands Medical Missions in Cotija, Mexico, a community of about 20,000 where volunteers have spent nearly a decade building a clinic, recruiting doctors, providing free health care, and reinvigorating both their professional calling and their personal faith.

“It’s almost like I actually have a practice down there—whenever I’m in Cotija, I see people I’ve treated over the past seven years,” Knabel says. He’s currently preparing for his 10th mission trip in late May.

Knabel wants young people to share in the experience. In 2005, he and his wife created the Helping Hands Medical Missions Scholarship through the Mark and Mary Knabel Charitable Trust to send UI medical students and undergraduates from Loras College in Dubuque on weeklong trips to Cotija.

One of those students is Karina Silva, a second-year medical student who joined the mission in 2007 and spent an additional month working with local physicians. The trip held special importance for her, since Cotija is her hometown.

“When I was growing up there, a visiting mission group from Texas helped get me interested in medicine,” says Silva, who moved with her family to California at age 15. “Getting to go back as a medical student was amazing and fulfilling.”

A Cotija mission entails a packed schedule of clinic days in town, trips to remote neighboring villages, and evening continuing education sessions that feature lively discussion of Catholic perspectives on bioethics. The visiting volunteers work alongside local doctors, sometimes sharing new procedures or research findings.

For Silva, perhaps the most profound moment of the trip was treating her own grandfather, who’d been injured in a fall. But she also got to explore the role of faith in her life and the lives of her patients.

The evening before they begin seeing patients, Helping Hands volunteers go door to door spreading word about their clinic and offering to pray with residents. Silva feared she’d find this kind of evangelism awkward or intrusive.

“I had it totally wrong,” she says. “People actually expected and asked for us to visit. I was approached by a classmate’s mom who wanted to be sure we’d stop by her house.”

Helping Hands welcomes volunteers from any religion and doesn’t require participation in mass or prayer, but its dedication to melding spirituality and service is clear. Knabel says the experience reveals how faith can enrich the doctor-patient relationship—a lesson he puts into practice back home.

“I’ve become much more involved in caring for the whole person, and sometimes that means joining patients in their prayer lives,” he says. “I’ve learned that some patients are looking for that.”

Knabel knows firsthand how mission work can inspire budding doctors and seasoned physicians alike. His children Anne, Peter, and Daniel have accompanied him to Cotija on trips that encouraged Knabel’s sons to study medicine. Anne and Daniel will join him again on this year's mission.

For experienced physicians, the missions offer a rare chance to care for patients without the distraction of paperwork, insurance regulations, and other bureaucratic hassles. “You bring a sense of service home with you,” says Knabel, whose practice and teaching in Wisconsin focus on surgical dermatology. “It’s changed my view of medicine.”

Doctor speaks with clinic staff.Through their commitment to Cotija, Knabel and colleagues have made a lasting impact on the city’s health care infrastructure. Before long, the Helping Hands teams may find it’s time to shift their focus to needier communities, but Knabel says his connection to Cotija and its people won’t be broken.

“Cotija will always be a special place for me, just like my hometown,” he says. “Places like this become part of you.”

Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tim Schoon; Additional photos used with permission by Helping Hands Medical Missions

April 14, 2008