September 06, 2017
The 2017 Operation Care Abroad team takes a minute to pose for a photo at the Marco Polo Hotel.

More than 500 miles southeast of Manila — and 8,500 miles outside of Detroit — is Davao City.

It is, by land mass, the Philippines’ largest city, but third by population. Located on the island of Mindanao, it’s an urban center known as the “Fruit Basket of the Philippines,” a nod to its role as the island’s leading exporter of fruits. But each January, it’s also a destination for citizens in need of medical care, thanks to volunteers from metro Detroit nonprofit Operation Care Abroad.

Founded by a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) at St. John Providence Health System, Operation Care Abroad works with doctors at Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao to provide anesthesia services for approximately 200 surgeries during its annual week-long mission trip. And each year, students from University of Detroit Mercy’s Nurse Anesthesia program are among the volunteers.

It’s a natural fit, in keeping with the charisms of the University’s Jesuit and Mercy founders, to help those in need, both at home and abroad. In fact, Mike Dosch, associate professor and chair of Detroit Mercy’s Nurse Anesthesia department, estimates 40 to 50 percent of his students do mission work around the world.

This year, five students traveled to Davao. Joseph Shovan, Tierney McCue, Katherine Maloni, Lisa Zetuna and Christina Zotos are in their final year of the graduate program, which typically takes 27 months to complete and requires students to spend 2,500 hours in surgery before graduation. Admission to the highly competitive program requires applicants to have at least one year of recent (within the past five years) nursing experience working in a critical care areas, such as intensive care units.

Shovan, McCue, Maloni, Zetuna and Zotos made the 36-hour journey on their own dime, spending more than $3,000 to work 10 to 12 hour days at SPMC, helping patients who, often, have not received any type of regular, routine medical care.

“They will go 30 or 40 years without seeing a primary care doctor,” said Shovan.

For some patients, just getting to SPMC is an arduous journey.

“The hardship there is great,” said Dosch. “People would walk for days to get help.”

And once they arrive, they have a far different experience than patients in American hospitals. 

Without enough supplies, anything that can be reused is cleaned and used again by medical staff. “It’s incredible what they’re able to do,” said McCue.

Families also play a greater role in patients’ recoveries. With nurses in short supply, it is family members who provide most of the care, even going so far as to do manual ventilation if their relatives cannot afford a ventilator.

Most of the anesthesia provided by the Detroit Mercy students were spinal blocks and epidurals for procedures like gallbladder removals. Operation Care Abroad also cites cataract removals, mitral valve replacements and cranial facial reconstruction as procedures performed during the annual mission.

The students were well prepared for the medical rigors of the trip, thanks to the clinical rotations of the program.

Shovan said the clinical experience at Detroit Mercy sets it apart from other nurse anesthesia programs in the state. “We have a lot of clinical sites and a great variety,” he explained.

But even with a top-notch program, traveling abroad gave the students something they wouldn’t have gained at home: The ability to see the impact of their work on a global scale.

For more information about Operation Care Abroad, visit To learn more about the Nurse Anesthesia program at Detroit Mercy, visit

— By Amelia Skimin. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.