Snohomish County’s healing hands reach beyond borders

Elaine Adams had long wanted to travel to a developing country to use her nursing skills to help people too poor to pay for medical care. So when her son, Jeff Adams, a Snohomish doctor, told her there was an opening on an October medical mission to Guatemala City, she couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.

There was one condition: Elaine Adams wanted her husband, Robert, to go along. However, his only time in an operating room had been as a patient.

Robert Adams agreed to go, and the family left in late October to spend six grueling days at a Guatemala City hospital. Their mission left little time for family bonding. They had to skip the Mayan ruins and museums.

But they returned home gratified that they had been able to combine their skills to treat children whose parents had nowhere else to turn.

“I think I’m called to help people,” said Jeff Adams, 35, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Everett Clinic who went on a similar trip in 2003. “And these are kids who would be unable to get services otherwise.”

The three were part of a team of 18 people – six of them from Snohomish County – who treated and examined more than 200 children. Other volunteers were from the Seattle area and Kansas. Most were doctors or nurses.

Others, like Robert Adams, a small-business owner in Sammamish, had no medical background. He helped in any way he could, holding down patients so they wouldn’t harm themselves after waking from anesthesia and using his carpentry skills to put together shelving for the hospital.

Elaine Adams has been a nurse for 35 years, and Jeff Adams has been a doctor for nine years.

As health professionals, the two would often talk about medical techniques and their patients when they chatted on the phone or at family gatherings. Yet, it wasn’t until they traveled to Guatemala that the mother and son had the chance to work together in an operating room.

While under a deadline to treat as many of the Guatemalan patients as he could, Jeff Adams said he had no time to think about his mother watching him. “I knew it was my mom,” he said. “But I’m preoccupied with operating.”

“He’s a physician and I’m a nurse,” said Elaine Adams, 58, who lives with her husband in North Bend. “You kind of do your own job.”

Elaine Adams’ nursing career began in the eighth grade when a teacher at her Detroit school asked her to help comfort sick kindergartners. She now works at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue and at a Bellevue outpatient center.

Jeff Adams first became interested in medicine while working at Overlake one summer as a college student. His mother helped him get the job interview.

Transporting patients on gurneys at Overlake was hardly glamorous. But Jeff Adams thrived in the fast-paced hospital environment. It spurred him to become a doctor.

Back home in Snohomish County, Jeff Adams said he loves his job at the Everett Clinic but tires of the endless insurance paperwork. The equipment he worked with in Guatemala was old, and the atmosphere was at times chaotic. But he was able to focus entirely on caring for patients without getting distracted by red tape.

“It was just nice to be there and do nothing but help people,” he said. “It gets to the root of what you do: Find a problem and do what you can to help.”

The trip made Robert Adams, 59, more appreciative of the enormous responsibility his son carries each time he operates.

He had never seen his wife or son in action until he watched them during an eardrum surgery in Guatemala. He was particularly excited to see his son operate.

“I told Jeff afterward that I was impressed with what he had done,” Robert Adams said. “To most doctors and medical people, it’s easy. But from a layman’s perspective, he basically detached about three-fourths of an ear, put it back together again and made it work. I thought, ‘Wow!’”

Reporter David Olson: 425-339-3452 or dolson@

Beyond Borders

Six Snohomish County doctors and nurses recently traveled to Guatemala to treat children whose families are too poor to pay for medical care. Volunteering on behalf of the nonprofit group Healing the Children, they spent six grueling days in sometimes trying conditions to alleviate suffering.

Herald reporter David Olson and photographer Michael Martina followed the volunteers during their medical mission. This series chronicles that trip. The series continues on Sunday.

Today: A family’s desire to help others

Sunday: Too poor to afford basic medical care

Monday: Doctors work long hours to treat kids

Tuesday: A mother’s prayers are answered

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