Solidarity Bridge provides medical care to people of Bolivia

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Solidarity Bridge executive director Ann Rhomberg with a patient in Punata, Bolivia, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Solidarity Bridge)

A quarter-century ago, Solidarity Bridge started as an organization that would send medical professionals on mission trips to Bolivia, bringing care that was not otherwise available or that patients could not afford.

Now, under the umbrella of the Solidarity Lay Association, Solidarity Bridge partners with a sister organization — Puente de Solidaridad — in Bolivia and Paraguay and operates a company to bring low-cost medical supplies to those countries, as well as coordinating donations of medical equipment and supplies from U.S.-based manufacturers and hospitals.

The Solidarity Lay Association is an international public association of the faithful of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The mission trips continue, with between five and nine scheduled each year. While there, volunteer surgeons and support staff both treat patients and work with medical professionals on the ground, teaching and training and learning what they most need.

Meanwhile, Puentes de Solidaridad organizes its own trips, offering services in more remote or less-resourced areas of Bolivia.

Since the first trip in 1999, Solidarity Bridge has run 115 mission trips, worked with 120 local physicians and 493 mission volunteers, provided 7,500 surgeries, sent $46.7 million worth of donated supplies and served more than 30,000 patients.

Through it all, the organization has been guided by Catholic social teaching, especially its emphasis on solidarity.

Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa“The fundamental identity of who we are is shaped and formed by the Christian understanding of Christ’s presence and being integrally connected to God’s presence on earth,” said Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa, who founded Solidarity Bridge. “If we follow the thread, we find our way.”

That means that the mission is defined by a Catholic understanding of human dignity, what it means to work for the common good and subsidiarity, or having decisions made as close to those who will be affected by them as possible, as well as solidarity, or treating all people as brother and sisters.

“As Juan Lorenzo says, solidarity is our motive and our method,” said executive director Ann Rhomberg.

That means that Solidarity Bridge concentrates on providing surgical services, because that’s what partners in Bolivia said they were most in need of.

It means that the surgeons who have volunteered in Bolivia and Paraguay say that they frequently communicate with their colleagues in South America over WhatsApp and other platforms even after they return to the United States.

It means that when a provider in Bolivia approached Hinojosa shortly after he started Solidarity Bridge and said they needed pacemakers because of the prevalence of Chagas disease, he found them.

“At first, I said, ‘We don’t do that,’” said Hinojosa, now retired. “‘We do surgery.’ But then I thought about it, and here we are.”

That “here” ended up including soliciting donations of surplus supplies and equipment from hospitals and manufacturers, and, when the stream of donations proved unsustainable, starting a company to provide equipment at the lowest possible prices.

“It’s always taking one step at a time,” Hinojosa said. “You have to follow the thread, a thread that is still present in the culture of the organization. It’s an unfolding of what we are called to do.”

“It’s a lot of listening,” said Rachel McDonnell, director of communications. “There’s a lot of back and forth.”

A wooden statue that stands in Solidarity Bridge’s Evanston office and warehouse shows a monk cupping his ear with his hand; it reminds staff that listening and discernment is necessary to their mission, Rhomberg said.

While Solidarity Bridge provides equipment, supplies and training to medical providers, mostly in Bolivia, all of their work is in service to the patients, who might not be able get services otherwise, said Megan Kennedy-Farrell, senior director of mission identity.

“The lives of the patients are always our foremost focus,” Kennedy-Farrell said, noting that teaching techniques to doctors in their home countries multiplies the number of patients who can be helped. “That’s the part that touches our souls most deeply. … No patient should have to wait for a plane to land with a doctor from the U.S. to have the surgery they need.”

Surgical services are especially important, because many people around the world cannot afford them or have no access to them. Each year, 18 million people around the world die from conditions that could be treated surgically, according to Solidarity Bridge leaders.

Because the focus is on building relationships, surgeons and support staff who travel with Solidarity Bridge work side by side with their Bolivian counterparts, learning from one another.

Solidarity Bridge has many local and U.S.-based partners, from hospitals and health systems and manufacturers of medical supplies to local parishes. In addition to doing presentations to parishes about its work, its leaders have also helped schools and parishes plan their own mission trips, with a focus on building relationships and solidarity rather than acting like “saviors” to the people they intend to help, or even causing more disruption than development.

“We see and speak about our work as transformational,” McDonnell said. “Our work is transformed through God’s grace. The transformation is mutual. It’s bi-directional. It can sound cheesy, the idea that volunteers get more than they give, but if our world is going to shift to solidarity, those of us with closer access to abundance have to be transformed. Hopefully, we are transforming our own mindsets.”

To learn more about Solidarity Bridge, visit To learn more about the Solidarity Lay Association, visit


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