It was one of the best beach days yet this year.

To apply

Apply for one of Palmetto Medical Initiative's upcoming medical mission trips to Burundi, Nicaragua or Uganda by visiting their website, www.palmetto and downloading the application.

A group of Palmetto Medical Initiative volunteers gathered on Sullivan's Island on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-May, just a few blocks from the ocean. But instead of ushering in another summer season, they wanted to talk about some of the powerful lessons they learned during a recent medical mission trip to Africa - heavy stuff for a backyard barbecue.

"In one sense, it made me so grateful while we were over there for the American health care system," said Monica Firth, a nurse at East Cooper Medical Center and a recent graduate of the Medical University of South Carolina's health care administration program.

"We had a 9-year-old who came in HIV positive," she said. "If she was here, we could medicate her and treat her and she'd live into her 30s or 40s. There, she may not have lived until the group got there this May."

Firth traveled with Palmetto Medical Initiative in March to staff a clinic in Burundi, Africa. Burundi is a small, land-locked country east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and south of Rwanda. The U.S. State Department cautions Americans about traveling there, citing security concerns and potential terrorist activities in an April advisory.

Palmetto Medical Initiative volunteers travel the region with armed guards.

"It just made you so thankful for what we have here," Firth said. "But, on the flip side, to see how ungrateful everybody is (in the U.S.), it was so hard to come back and to stay positive with my patients day in and day out and not scream at them, 'You don't know how good you have it!' "

Palmetto Medical Initiative, founded in 2008, staffs medical mission trips to two sites in East Africa and one site in Central America. The initiative has treated more than 100,000 patients in those counties and sent more than 500 Medical University of South Carolina students on trips over the past six years.

It organizes several missions a year to these countries and the initiative needs more than just medical professionals and students to staff them.

Dr. Edward O'Bryan, who co-founded the organization, said they need doctors, lawyers, administrators, nurses and a variety of other volunteers.

"We need about 60 percent actual medical people," O'Bryan said. Anyone who wants to travel and thinks they can contribute, should apply, he said. "We need everything."

Shannon Coon, an occupational therapist from Columbia, also traveled to Burundi during the March trip.

She first volunteered with Palmetto Medical Initiative during an earlier trip to Uganda as a student.

"I lost track of the days, the dates and the time," Coon said. "You wake up, you eat, you go help people, you come back, you eat, you attempt to take a shower and then do it all over again."

Still, she said both trips have been far more rewarding than any 10-day vacation at the beach.

She plans to travel with Palmetto Medical Initiative again.

So does Firth. She wants to return to Burundi once Palmetto Medical Initiative finishes building a permanent clinic and stay for a month.

"I've always had a heart for missions," Firth said. "The travel is the hardest part. It takes 17 hours to get back."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.