Sophia Timba | December 05, 2023

Fulfilling his Medical Mission

Nursing student travels the world assisting in life-changing surgeries for populations in need.

Wilfredo Rivera on a medical mission trip

As if being a full-time nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital and a full-time student wasn’t challenging enough, RN to BSN major Wilfredo Rivera volunteers multiple times per year for medical missions around the world.

“Because I’ve worked in OR so long, there’s not one surgery I haven’t been a part of at Strong,” Rivera said. “It’s an amazing experience as far as being able to give your knowledge to hospital staff who have very limited education when it comes to these types of surgeries.”

Rivera holding a cleft-lip patient

Rivera recently disembarked on his second medical mission to South America organized by the HUGS Foundation, spending his time operating on children with cleft lips and palates. In April, he went on a similar trip to Ecuador and already plans for medical missions next year which includes Vietnam and a return to Ecuador.

As a scrub nurse, Rivera played a vital role in every single operation performed on his missions, averaging eight surgeries per day.

“In Ecuador, we did 52 surgeries in one week, and I wish we could’ve done more,” Rivera recalled. “In Guatemala, we did 39 surgeries in four and a half days. I was in all 39 of them, circulating between the rooms.”

The medical mission to Ecuador involved Rivera and his team performing surgeries on children with ear microtia, a cosmetic condition in which the outer ear ranges from nonexistent to not fully formed. In Guatemala, they operated on children with cleft lips and palates, which means they were born with the two sides of their lips or palates not fully attached.

“Some patients travel up to 16 hours by buggy to be seen and hope to be chosen for the operation.”
Wilfredo Rivera

“These surgeries just aren’t done [in these countries] unless you have people come volunteer to,” he explained. “Some patients travel up to 16 hours by buggy to be seen and hope to be chosen for the operation.”

Rivera moved to Rochester from Puerto Rico in 1999 when Strong Memorial Hospital hired him as a scrub nurse. He spent the next two decades dedicating himself to learn as much as he could about healthcare.

“I started climbing the clinical ladder. I never limited myself to just learning one thing — I wanted to learn it all,” Rivera said. “Eventually I transitioned into the charge nurse role. Alongside the anesthesia clinical coordinator we run 30 operating rooms. I say I’m like air traffic control, making sure planes aren’t crashing into each other.”

Rivera and his team in the operating room

In 2020, he decided it was time to advance his healthcare career. He earned his associate degree to become a Registered Nurse (RN) from MCC. Currently, he is enrolled in Brockport’s RN to BSN program as a full-time student, works full time as a registered nurse, and continues to attend medical missions around the world.

“It’s all about time management,” Rivera said. “Brockport is really amazing because it’s geared for the working RN. You have the syllabus early and it’s all online so you know what your weekly assignments will be, and I can structure myself to get my assignments in.”

Earlier this year, in recognition of Rivera’s decades of hard work and dedication to his patients, he was awarded with the title of OR Nurse of the Year by the University of Rochester for his work at Strong.

“It caught me completely off guard. I do what I do not expecting recognition,” Rivera said. “The chief of surgery shook my hand and said, ‘No one deserves this more than you do.’”