COLUMBIA — A local physician's pet project has grown into a global online network for people who want to volunteer their medical expertise and other kinds of aid to overseas medical relief efforts.

Adam Beckett, 41, built Global First Responder almost entirely on his own in the past three years. The website for the project, which he funded, launched in August 2012, and though it's still in development, it has more than 300 members. It's used to organize medical relief trips and connect volunteers to agencies doing relief work overseas.

Agencies are asking to be listed on the site, and they now number about 60. But word continues to spread, and Beckett said there are hundreds of other relief agencies he hopes to list.

"I basically want to get people more involved in the world and really expose health conditions," Beckett said. "Instead of making things 'out of sight, out of mind,' we put pictures up, and we expose all the health care needs. And we try to make it easier for people to go volunteer."

Meanwhile, he continues to organize and take trips himself. He has been on 12 medical relief trips in the past four years, and this week will be his 13th. He will fly to the Zaatari refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, to help provide relief to Syrian war refugees.

Beckett will be part of a group of 21 medical and nonmedical volunteers, including three others from Columbia, on the trip organized by Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum.

The group will work alongside agencies already helping in the camp, where an estimated 84,960 refugees, including tens of thousands of children, live in tents. Estimates are wide-ranging, but Zaatari is often described as the second-largest refugee camp in the world after the Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya.

The Zaatari camp was started in response to the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 and resulted in an estimated 9 million Syrians fleeing their homes — many to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Beckett said work in Jordan will be unlike anything he has ever seen. The team expects to see an estimated 350 to 400 patients in clinic every day who will need everything from regular checkups to emergency care. The patients will be mostly women and children, but Beckett said he's learned to be ready for anything.

Rick Baker, Beckett's right-hand man and a flight paramedic with University Hospital's Staff for Life Helicopter Service, is also going on the trip.

"When you have 150,000 people living in tents, something as small as a cold or flu can become what they call 'endemic' and spread very rapidly," Baker said. "We're seeing things like polio, which is eradicated in the States, making a comeback in the camps."

University Hospital emergency room nurse Stacey Lake is also participating in the Jordan trip.

Global matchmaker

Beckett knew he wanted to be a doctor when he was doing humanitarian work in the Marine Corps.

"I did so much traveling with the military. I kind of always wanted to do that type of humanitarian service, just on a different scale, as a physician," said Beckett, who is an emergency room doctor at University Hospital.

Observing that relief volunteers wanting to do medical work couldn't always make it happen — and that agencies looking for teams couldn't always find them — he decided to play matchmaker and start Global First Responder.

In addition to the medical and nonmedical work being done, Global First Responder teams aim to provide health education to residents, doctors and nurses in the communities they work with.

"We like to do more than just go in and treat patients," Beckett said. "We also give classes to educate the doctors and nurses on everything from advanced cardiac life support to care of a newborn and nutrition. We try to make the weeks as productive as we can since we're only there for such a short time."

Makeshift solutions

Beckett and his colleagues have been preparing for the 10-day Jordan trip by gathering medications and other supplies, most of which they pay for themselves. Some businesses and individuals donate money or supplies to the efforts.

No matter how prepared the team is, the cramped quarters and limited medical supplies in the camps make the work even more challenging.

"We're very limited on lab tests and everything," Beckett said. "Half the time we don't have X-ray or blood work, so it's a lot of shotgun medicine and just going with your instinct. We're prepared for that, and we do the best we can with what we've got."

This was especially true on Beckett's first trip. He traveled to Haiti in February 2010 after the devastating earthquake there.

"In Haiti, there were only a limited number of ventilators for the sickest patients, so you've got to kind of pick and choose, unfortunately, who is going to live and who isn't," Beckett said. "You have to decide how long you can exhaust supplies on one patient as opposed to how many others you can save by letting one go."

The groups also bring nonmedical volunteers with them to do everything from feeding babies to cleaning up camps. Matt Ford, a Columbia real estate agent and handyman, is one of the four local team members and the only nonmedical volunteer from Columbia. Ford will repair and build things for the refugees.

"The nonmedical people we take on trips are often the busiest," Baker said.

People who can't participate in a trip can donate supplies or money, either through Global First Responder or the organization's Facebook page. Global First Responder is a limited liability company that functions as a not-for-profit. Any money raised by the site goes directly to global relief efforts.

"There's so many agencies that you see pop up that say, 'Donate $100, and it will feed a family,' but in reality the money never gets to the family," Beckett said. "It's well known in the volunteer community that stuff just doesn't get there, so (Global First Responder) tries to say, 'Whatever you donate, we're going to show you when we come back where everything is going.'"

Beckett is moving forward on another project: creating an international medicine program through University Hospital's emergency department that would bring nursing and medical students as well as residents on medical relief trips. Ultimately, his goal is "to get the university as a whole a lot more involved in these types of relief efforts."

The group will post pictures and information from its trip on its Facebook page.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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