No coach likes to lose an athlete during the season, but Mt. Lebanon High School field hockey coach Stacey Hart knew she had to make an exception for junior midfielder Meghan Schneck.
"I was confused," Hart admitted when she learned before the season that Schneck, 16, wanted to spend a week in Lusaka, Zambia, helping her father, Dr. Fran Schneck, and other members of a group called International Volunteers in UrologyMED.
"I didn't immediately realize it was to help kids," the Blue Devils coach said. "But, when she explained, I thought it was too amazing to pass up."
Meghan thought so, too.
While her father, a pediatric urologist at Children's Hospital, and other physicians performed surgeries on Zambian children ranging from newborns to 18-year-olds, Meghan provided valuable assistance.
"I helped out the recovery nurses there," she said. "After the kids had their surgeries, I helped them wake up from anesthesia, check on their vital signs and give them medicine and made sure they were OK before they went off to the ward where they stayed. Whenever we had rounds, I gave them medicine and helped them."
The teenager learned a few words in two native languages, Bimba and Nyange, to help her communicate with her young patients.
Her father travels to Africa twice a year with members of the organization, which provides technological assistance to local physicians and instructs them on surgical procedures. His most recent trip was his 12th visit to Africa.
"They have very little money in the medical system, and all of it is government-provided," Dr. Schneck said. "It's pretty much cash-and-carry for [Zambians] to get health care. If they have no money, they can't go to the hospital."
Ten people made the IVUMED trip, half from Pittsburgh. Others came from Seattle and Salt Lake City. The organization was founded about 20 years ago in Salt Lake City by Dr. Catherine de Vries, also a pediatric urologist.
Dr. Schneck became involved with the group about eight years ago, and he visits Ghana and Zambia regularly. He and a team will visit Ghana in April. There are few pediatric surgeons in sub-Saharan Africa, he said, and no urologists that specialize in pediatric work.
"We go there to teach them procedures that we do here commonly," he said. "They've never been trained [to do them]. Sometimes, they need some instruments and medical devices that we are able to supply to them, and they are inexpensive for us to provide."
Life expectancy there is in the 40s, Dr. Schneck said.
The whole Schneck family is involved in medicine. In addition to Meghan's father, her mother was an intensive care nurse, and older sister Sarah is enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. Sarah Schneck, who also played field hockey at Mt. Lebanon, has been to Africa three times with her father.
Meghan said she would like to go back to Africa. But she'll have to find a way to pay for her next trip.
"It's really expensive to go over there, so I want to get a job to pay for going over there," she said. "I want to do this in the future."
Dr. Schneck gave Hart full marks for being on board with his daughter's trip.
"I know this would not typically [be approved] in Mt. Lebanon," he said. "You have to be committed [to the team] 100 percent. I've never seen [Meghan] more nervous than she was before she talked with coach Hart. But I'm really proud that she was able to go. These [trips] teach kids things that you don't get in school."
Meghan, a midfielder, saw some varsity action for the Blue Devils, who finished their season with a record of 7-8-2. Meghan said she hopes to start for the varsity next season.
Schneck said her teammates were initially skeptical when she said she was going to Zambia.
"At first, they didn't believe me," she said. "No one says they are going to Africa on a medical trip whenever they are 16 years old. I was nervous when I was telling my coaches because I didn't know how it would affect the season. But I told them right before preseason ended, so they knew. But everyone was really surprised, and they thought it was really cool."
On her return, she showed her coaches and teammates photos she had taken in Africa with her phone.
"It's changed my life," Schneck said. "It's made me realize what we have over here and how we take all of this for granted. When I gave [Zambian youngsters] a sticker or a little bracelet, it was like you'd just given them $100. They just appreciate everything."