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Nicole Williams shares stories of mission trips that saved women’s lives — and changed her own

Nicole Williams

Nicole Williams

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When I was a medical student at Loyola University Chicago from 1998-2002, I had my very first mission experience. Along with three other students, I went to Haiti to aid the group “Hands Together” — and what I discovered there cemented my desire to help others throughout my career.

During our days, we worked at wound clinics, visited AIDS patients and held and nurtured babies with tuberculosis. Every evening, we sat together and marveled at what we had seen. We pontificated on what we would do, how we would change the world. Of course, those dreams of youth usually fade with time, but I promised myself, on a rooftop in Haiti under a starlit sky, that I would not let that happen.

Later, during my residency training in OB-GYN at St. Joseph Hospital, I began my journey to live up to the promise I’d made myself. One of my mentors traveled to the Dominican Republic every year, and she took a resident physician with her each time. When it was my turn, I dove right in. We stayed in an un-air-conditioned hostel under mosquito nets after an exceedingly bumpy four-hour bus trip in darkness worse than pitch. With travel of this sort, I’ve learned that the key to a satisfying experience is flexibility (and a lot of water).

My Spanish was limited, but I did my best, communicating with and without our solo translator. Our operating room was substandard to say the least, and had not been used in years. We had to clean, stock and sterilize everything ourselves. But with our group and our guides, we banded together to perform about 20 successful surgeries.

Since that first trip, I’ve taken mission trips to Cambodia, the Dominican Republic and Ghana, and I have an upcoming trip to central Mexico with Medical Ministry International. Each time, I try to take a resident physician in training. I want to share my experience with them. I want them to learn how to do surgery literally anywhere in the world — that way, the work will continue beyond my hands.

On my most recent trip to Ghana, we performed about eight surgeries a day, but one particular patient stood out. She came to us appearing as if she were about to deliver a baby — but that “baby” turned out to be a 5-pound fibroid. We perform surgery under anesthesia that’s similar to an epidural, so the patient was awake the entire time. As we worked, she sang! For the first time in years, she was free of her burden. She smiled and cried with gratitude.

Over the years, my colleagues and I have performed nearly 100 such surgeries on women with conditions such as severe fibroids, prolapse of the uterus and ovarian cysts. What’s most amazing is seeing a patient get up, walk out of the hospital, mount the back of a motorcycle and ride off into the sunset on the first day after surgery — whereas in the U.S., most patients are still eating Jell-O and lying in bed.

I know I wouldn’t be who I am without this work. It affords me a view of a conflicted, dichotomous, yet beautiful world. It’s changed my mind, lightened my spirit and altered my soul. And for the patients we help, it’s literally the opportunity of a lifetime.

Dr. Nicole Williams opened The Gynecology Institute of Chicago this month. To learn about how you can contribute to Medical Ministry International’s mission trips, visit

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