I hold patients’ hands. It’s just what I do. Big hands, small hands, calloused hands, manicured hands, I hold them all. Why? Because every hand deserves to be held, especially when that person is about to undergo general anesthesia for an operation.
Sometimes patients ask me if they will wake up. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they make jokes to mask fear or uncertainty. Sometimes they say nothing but smile silently through their surgical mask. It is astonishing what a simple gesture of comfort can do.
In Vietnam, I held every hand too, including one so badly burned, I wondered how I would hold it. This patient had suffered severe upper body burns from a gasoline fire. His left hand was contorted, inflexible and scarred in deformity. His fingers were frozen, his wrist locked in flexion from thick contracture scars.
It didn’t matter. I held his hand anyway. It wasn’t easy. I could not interlock my fingers in his, or easily offer a gentle squeeze to let him know he mattered to me. He may not have been able to even feel my touch but I held his hand anyway. It was important to me and the right thing to do.
Volunteering in Vietnam on a surgical mission was also important and the right thing to do for 27 other pairs of hands. These collective hands were nothing short of amazing. They held scalpels, placed IVs, tied sutures, administered anesthesia, cleaned instruments, made custom splints, wheeled beds, typed daily operating room schedules, hauled supplies, carried children and performed a myriad of other tasks. They were hands that woke up eager to help and hands that went to bed tired. The end result of 56 hands working together – 74 life-improving surgeries for people suffering with burns and deformities, and a lifetime of memories for the hands that gave selflessly of their skills and kindness.
It is all about the kid!! Their lives and the lives of their parents and family members have been changed forever because of the amazing service the Surgicorps team provided at the Beit CURE Children’s Hospital.
My husband, Dave, is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist and I am a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner. We were privileged to be members of the September 2022 Zambia team. Upon being accepted to join the team, we immediately began to prepare for our trip. Uncertainty, nervousness, excitement, and even some fear were all part of our emotions of what to expect upon arriving in Zambia. All those worries went out the door after seeing the smiles on the children’s faces and the humility and graciousness expressed from the parents on Screening Sunday.
All this wouldn’t be possible without the amazing leadership of Surgicorps. Starting from the top, Jack Demos, who is the foundation for the team. DeNese Olson, coordinator, united and motivated each team member. Her daily quotes were a true inspiration. Michael Best and Lori Ellis were invaluable resources in this new environment for many of us.
Each of the twenty Surgicorps team members as well as hospital staff demonstrated patience, kindness, flexibility, compassion, expertise, and most importantly love and respect for one another and the patients.
Dave and I hoped to make a difference in the lives of the children we served. In reality, they made a difference in our lives. Truly a Life Changing Experience! Our rewards were seen in the surgical outcomes and smiles of the children, parents, and staffs faces that were impacted in one short week.
Our prayer and hope is that with this short-term mission trip to Zambia, the Surgicorps International Team has made a long-term impact on the lives of those we served.
Quotes from Mother Teresa:
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
Judy and Dave Kelley
My first introduction to Surgicorps happened, as many life-changing moments do, serendipitously. I was a 17-year-old high school student, sitting (begrudgingly) in a clinic waiting room, accompanying my mom on her annual GYN appointment. I had protested this excursion (as any teenager would), but my mom stood firm, insisting that I just had to meet her doctor, Dr. Joanne Oleck. There was just something about her strong character and decisive personality, my mom said, that would do me good to see. And, as is usually the case, my mom was right.
As Dr. Oleck wrapped up the appointment, she turned to me and asked about my interests. I told her that I was planning on studying pre-med in college, and that I also spoke Spanish and was planning to double-major. Without hesitation, she remarked “Oh, you should come to Guatemala with me!” My mom and I both looked at each other, thinking that she couldn’t be serious, but a few seconds later she was writing down the name of an organization, Surgicorps, that she traveled with. She told me to fill out an application and mention her as a reference. And so, a few months later in August 2013, made my first trip to Guatemala as an interpreter. And now, in August 2022, I just completed my 6th trip, now as a 4th year medical student and first-time official member of the medical team.
Reflecting back on my prior trips, it is incredible to see the transition from then to now. For one thing, when the dinner conversation switches to discussion of the intricacies of cases or physiology, I actually understand what is going on, which is really cool. I can dictate a medical note, I can answer patient’s questions about a procedure, I can read a chart and pick out the relevant findings and pertinent information, I can take a detailed history and do a physical exam, I can collect the instruments needed for a procedure, and I can look at the screen during a laparoscopic procedure and actually identify relevant anatomy instead of just seeing a bunch of pink blobs. All of these skills are things I’ve learned gradually over the past 4 years of school, without really noticing my progress. However, when I compare this past trip to my previous trips, I can see in a new light just how far I’ve come. When I was 17, I dreamed of being exactly where I am today. And that is an incredible feeling to reflect on.
One thing that I know for sure is that I would not be where I am today without Surgicorps and all of the incredible mentors I’ve met along the way. First and foremost, I will never be able to express the gratitude I have for Dr. Oleck taking a chance on me and going out of her way to include me on the team at just 17 years old. She was the first mentor in medicine I ever had, and her strength and perseverance have inspired me to this day. She even went as far as to be my roommate on my first trip, sending her husband, Mike, off to a different room for the week so I would be allowed to attend as a minor. I still have the Spanish medical dictionary she gave to me on that first trip; one of the many reminders of her that I will treasure and carry with me throughout my career.
Although Dr. Oleck is no longer with us, I’m sure that she would be proud that on any trip, you are most likely to find me in the GYN OR. This is thanks to Drs. Farzi Nabizadeh and Anne Hardart, who picked up right where Dr. Oleck left off and took me under their wings from the beginning. I have learned so much from Farzi and Anne, both academically, but also interpersonally in watching how they connect with patients through clear and understandable explanations, and a kindness and lightheartedness that make a big surgery feel a little less scary. Their guidance, teaching, and friendship over the years has shown me the type of doctor I hope to be one day, and has also cemented my decision to incorporate women’s health as a large part of my future practice. In speaking of strong female mentors, I can’t go without mentioning Linda, DeNese, and Stephanie, whose decisiveness, organization, and ability to lead have given me something to aspire to from a young age. I also so admire Dr. David Kim both as a surgeon and a teacher. I still remember on my first trip, when I came down with mild cellulitis after getting innumerable mosquito bites on my ankle, Dr. Kim drew me a diagram of the inflammatory response on a recycled piece of surgical drape to help me better understand what was going on physiologically. I later went on to major in Immunology, but still remember Dr. Kim’s explanation as one of the most clear and understandable descriptions of this complex cascade. The anesthesia team has also been a memorable component of all of my trips, always ready to talk physiology with me and answer my questions if I peek my head around to their side of the drape. I still have a note on my phone from 8/9/17 titled “Anesthesia Meds” where I jotted down all of the details of our conversations about the mechanisms of action of Neostigmine, Rocuronium, and Propofol to name a few. Dave Metro and Brian Gierl are a blast to work with and have taught me so much. Post-op is my other favorite place to be on each trip, and I can’t thank Amy and Cathy enough for teaching me that sometimes, the best medicine is just holding someone’s hand and making them smile. As this long paragraph reveals, I’ve had no shortage of mentors through my experiences with Surgicorps, and each person on each trip has helped me to become the person that I am today.
It might be surprising to learn that, even after 6 surgical missions, I don’t plan to become a surgeon. But I fully credit my experience with Surgicorps with helping me to discover the areas of medicine that inspire me most: building relationships with patients, understanding how a person’s circumstances influence their health, and focusing on education and comprehensive care. Additionally, learning from Guatemalan patients and hospital workers over the years has greatly enhanced my understanding of the practice and perception of medicine outside of the US. All together, these experiences have inspired me to pursue Family Medicine, centering my future practice around Spanish-speaking communities and caring for every member of the family while providing complete, one-stop, in-office care to combat the barriers of language access, cost, and limited time that disproportionately affect underserved communities. Eventually, I also hope to practice internationally, moving to Paraguay with my husband, Alejandro, and focusing on advocacy projects by partnering with and teaching at local medical schools, and working within the public healthcare sector to provide care to those most in need. But, I will always also leave a little room for serendipity, trusting that the most formative and life-changing opportunities will come about on their own, just like this one did 9 years ago.
And of course, my 6th trip with Surgicorps will definitely not be my last. I am looking forward to being a continued member of the medical team and helping in any capacity I can.
Where do I start for one of these blogs? After over ten trips in five countries with various organizations, not one of these missions is the same. However, they carry one commonality by leaving me with paradoxical feelings of renewal and exhaustion.
This trip was no different. I was humbled by the invitation from Dr. Anne Argenta to participate in the April 2022 trip to Zambia. Immediately, I was put in touch with the lead anesthesiologist Dr. Michele Misher-Harris who I felt like I could talk for days with on every phone call.
Fortunately, I was able to recruit a dear friend of 20 years who is the reason I became a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Sara Yarrow from St Jude’s Hospital. Combined, the two of us have 30 years of pediatric anesthesia experience. This trip to Beit Cure Hospital which specialized in pediatrics could not have been a better fit for us.
We hit the ground running after our amazing tiny team of 15 were united in Lusaka. This team had an instant connection, becoming fast friends having a driven work ethic to accomplish all that was requested of us.
By the end of “Screening Sunday” we completed 200 assessments to prepare for the surgical week ahead. Monday being the first day of surgery. Just when you would think we needed to acclimate to the environment, we completed 23 surgeries that day performing like we had been there for a few weeks.
Each day, early to rise, late to leave as the staff begged us to try to get every scheduled case done which we did. The sacrifice of the Zambian staff to stay late into the evening showed their commitment to the cause as much as the Surgicorps team.
Every child has a story that came through these OR doors. From disfiguring injuries and congenital deformities to the face and extremities each patient was treated with care, compassion, and determination to lift their spirits, free them from ostracizing, and allow life changing mobility.
At the completion of the mission we had changed the lives of 83 children. Our hard work was validated a thousand times over on Friday afternoon when we were able to “party” with our patients and their families. The singing and glorifying God sank deep into my soul that day along with testimonials of parents. My cheeks still hurt from smiling and singing with my new friends.
With our Friday departure from Beit Cure Hospital I am once again filled with gratefulness and validation of hard work that truly pays off. Dr. Jack Demos says it perfectly “THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US AND OUR PATIENTS IS THAT THEY WERE BORN IN THE WRONG ZIP CODE.”
And a piece of my heart will be left in that zip code.
Our Surgicorps Family has lost yet another shining light in the world of philanthropy and humanitarianism………we’re beyond saddened to announce the passing of Melinda Handler on October 14, 2021 after a futile 3 month battle with cancer.
Melinda was a Flight Attendant for years with Northwest Airlines, subsequently a Delta employee following the merger of those carriers. She was introduced to Surgicorps in 1996, her first trip to Natal, Brazil. She shortly thereafter followed that mission with trips to Nepal, Tanzania, Vietnam, Guatemala, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Mexico, Kazakhstan and finally Kenya. To say that she “loved our Kool Aid” so-to-speak was an understatement!
But Melinda brought more than dedication and commitment to Surgicorps…….only 56 years old, she was special to so many of us in any numbers of ways——a friend and companion in times of need, a constant Smile no matter the circumstances, so much energy and enthusiasm. She brought a certain sense of calm and compassion to any venue she entered. Never a word of anger, never a word spoken in haste, always in control and always willing to listen and to help. She was a gentle soul, an individual interested in you and your opinion, regardless of what it was. She loved our mission and work, and took great pride in being an integral part of an organization that gave her the opportunity to assist in the care of those in need.
Melinda, you will always have a place in our hearts as we travel the world changing lives one surgery at a time.
Linda, Jack and the entire Surgicorps International Family
Click here for her obituary:
On September 17th, 2021, a small group of medical professionals departed for Zambia with the two of us and a few other first timers included. When Dr. Michele Misher-Harris asked us to travel to Zambia with Surgicorps International, we were beyond excited about this opportunity. This was our first medical mission trip experience and we hope it will not be our last. The theme of this trip was flexibility because we were only able to take a small group of 15 people as opposed to larger numbers in past years. It was an awesome experience to be apart of such hard working individuals who all joined together to work toward taking care of as many patients as possible. Our experience working with the children and their families has been so fulfilling. We have been able to use our skills and training to help those who truly need it. This experience has validated why we went into health care and we are so grateful to be able to work alongside of an amazing team. To be able to see the smiles we’ve put on our patients and families faces in Zambia is a memory that we will never forget!
Brittany Gunderson and Megan Tomasco
After a very difficult year for a lot of people around the world, I feel so grateful to say that “We Are Back!”, doing what we do best, helping people.
This was my second mission to Antigua, Guatemala. A lot of things were different because of the pandemic. We traveled with a small but very capable team and, in a way, I feel that made the trip special. We were able to spend more time together as a team and connect.
I was so happy to see Dr. Kim, Dr. Hardart, Beth, Dr. Brian, Dr. Cliff, Stephanie and Mary, all of whom were on my first mission, along with all the staff from the hospital. I also had the pleasure of meeting wonderful people like Dr. Arcand, Dr. Aldelowo, Dr. Shiv, Cathie, Dakota, Zach-o and Heather. I learned so much from each of them and it was a thrill to work alongside people so compassionate and caring.
I enjoyed every moment of this trip. As the teams unofficial translator I had the unique pleasure of communicating intimately with the patients and their families. Nothing brings me more happiness than when we get to speak to the family after a successful surgery and let them know that everything is going to be OK. I was humbled by our patient’s courage, strength and gratitude. It was an honor to help them.
Thank you so much to Dr. Demos, Dr. Kim, Stephanie, Linda, Denese and all the volunteer team for your hard work, for making this happen and for opening the doors to this amazing family to me.
Muchas gracias por toda la colaboración y apoyo de Anabel, Dalia, Nico y a todo el equipo del Hospital Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro en Antigua, Guatemala.
Sasha Suárez Ferreira,
Haven’t been to Guatemala for some years now, but I find myself now in the airport in Houston, excited to join David Kim and his team in Antigua. This trip honors the memory of my Dad…..aka Tony Demos. He truly loved the work we’ve done for the past 27 years, and he found a “second home” in Antigua, his fountain pen and trusty notebook in hand as he and Mike Oleck put their stamp on Surgicorps Guatemala!
I’m honored to be a part of this team, our first since Covid has shut down the world. We’re all happy to be traveling again, doing what we do best……..changing lives one Surgicorps Smile at a time.
~Jack Demos, Surgicorps Founder
Surgicorps International, with a very heavy heart, shares the news of the death of Tony Demos.
Tony and his family helped to define Surgicorps International. Their strong belief in helping others in need has impacted people throughout the world and all of us in the Surgicorps Family.
Some of us had the privilege to be on a Surgicorps team with Tony. We saw firsthand his work ethic, his compassion, and his commitment to Surgicorps. We will cherish those memories forever.
To Jack, Madge, Steve, Sue, Beth, and all of the Demos Family, please know the Surgicorps Family loved Tony and our hearts are with you.
Click here for his obituary
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I’ve always loved this quote but it has never resonated so well with me as it did in 2020. As a Nurse Practitioner and Mom of 3, I thought staying home and loving my family was “easy” and something I already did. I wanted to do something different, something “bigger”. For the past 5 years I have had the privilege of working alongside the talented Guatemala team through
Surgicorps International. I grew accustomed to returning home from our week-long mission each August with a renewed faith in humanity.
Among the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic – incredible losses of life, health, human connection, and financial security, I often think of the people of Guatemala and the suffering they have endured not only this year but on a daily basis. Humble, beautiful people who now have to wait longer for surgeries considered routine in the US. Surgeries to alleviate pain,
restore health and correct deformities that cause physical disability and social isolation.
For now I remind myself (and others) that one doesn’t have to travel the world to make a “big” difference. I look forward to returning to the “easy” task of serving with this incredible organization. And until then, I will stay home. And love my family.
“When I stop and think about the past year and how rough it has been for all of us, my thoughts always turn quickly to Surgicorps and the kids around the world who are waiting for our return. When I think of all of the things we have missed this year, I think of them and how they have missed us. Traveling with our Surgicorps family is a very big part of our life, and even though the travel is difficult sometimes and the days are long, we miss it tremendously. We miss the feeling of giving, the friendship and love we receive from the the patients, hospital staff and families. We pray for their health and safety, as well as for our entire Surgicorps family. We miss you all, but we know that our love and friendships will survive this crisis and we look forward to seeing you in the new year. Stay safe, be well.” ~ Donna and Bill Bookwalter
“Each year for ten years I’ve had a new adventure with Surgicorps. Each time I travel with this group of dedicated, funny, eclectic people the magic begins and my heart grows ten times for a week. But not in 2020. It seems nothing went right this year. I deeply worried about the spread of COVID in the horrifically poor and crowded communities I have been so honored to serve. They in turn are worried about us. My friends in Zambia shared mask making patterns, so we could try to get faces covered when PPE was so scarce. The mothers of children I worked with sent messages to be sure we are not ill, eager for us to return. And when I lost my own mother to the virus, the outpouring of love I received from my Surgicorps family-not just from the US team, but from doctors, nurses, therapists and the parents of patients from all over the world had me in an endless stream of tears. Surgicorps has a quote “You have not had a perfect day until you have done something for someone else who can never repay you”. And then they do… We get far more than we give. My mother loved hearing of my adventures. She beamed with joy seeing pictures of her old skirts made of the finest cotton from Liberty of London upcycled into dresses for little girls all over the world. She taught me the value of giving time and energy to better human lives. She taught me that each and every person on the face of the earth is deserving of respect and kindness, and that ultimately all people are the same. Her spirit lives on in me, and I hope to spread it to others everywhere I go. Surgicorps is my chance to do that. With a little luck we will be back to traveling soon. “~ Betty Hearne
Our Surgicorps Family lost a truly wonderful and inspirational friend and colleague last week, as Dr. Melvin Spira passed away October 8, 2020 at the age of 95. Mel was a giant in the field of plastic surgery, a pioneer in reconstructive surgery. It would take us hours and too much paper to document the many achievements and accolades he received during his 50 year career as a leader in his field……suffice it to say that we were honored to have him as a member of our Surgicorps International Family.
He traveled with us initially to Vietnam in 2009, followed by trips to Guatemala, Ethiopia, Zambia, and multiple additional missions to Vietnam, the last in 2014 at the age of 89! Mel was not “just” a volunteer, he was a friend, a skilled and creative colleague, and an example of an individual dedicated to improving the lives of those in need throughout the world. He cherished his time in the OR’s of the world, and inspired and mentored us with his creative and unique approaches to problems that were complex and difficult.
It was a privilege and honor to travel and work with Mel Spira. He was a super friend, and a wonderful Ambassador for the world of plastic surgery. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this time of loss.
Mel, we love and respect you……enjoy your Tanqueray and tonics as you smile on all of us.
Linda, Jack and the entire Surgicorps International Family
Click here for his obituary
Our Surgicorps International Family lost a wonderful friend and colleague, as Dr. Joanne Oleck passed away after a brief illness on December 12, 2019. Joanne traveled with us to Guatemala yearly from 2007 – 2014, each time accompanied by her devoted husband, Mike. Their loving bond was palpable on each and every trip.
Joanne provided skilled gynecological care with great compassion and understanding. We were in awe of her strength and determination to overcome all obstacles. Team members will miss her unique humor followed by her quick smile.
Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, family members and many friends and colleagues during this time of loss.
Linda, Jack, and the entire Surgicorps International Family
Click here for her obituary
An hour’s drive, just West from the flurry of urban Nairobi, exists a tranquil, lush, ten-acre safe haven for orphaned, vulnerable African girls called Hekima Place. Undeniably it is built upon a foundation shaped by love. One must experience it personally to understand how exceptionally special it is.
I was one of seven volunteers from Pittsburgh who recently had the good fortune of visiting such a remarkable destination. We seven traveled to Kenya as representatives of Surgicorps International, a non profit organization that performs free surgeries, at local hospitals, to the poor in developing countries. Our purpose was to explore a hospital near Nairobi for a potential future mission. Kate Fletcher, the founder of Hekima Place, served as a gracious host during our 5-day stay in Africa. We met many dedicated team members responsible for sustaining this well-organized refuge-evidence that it takes a village.
A small number of women stood out to me. Affectionally called “House Mums,” these ladies committed their time solely to the youngsters, caring for them as if they were their own. By instilling trust, respect and unconditional love, they transformed houses into homes and established family-like bonds for otherwise girls with difficult lives.
As volunteers, we interacted daily with the children whose average age ranged between 8 months old and 14 years . Our group helped with school work and joined in play. We listened to one read with enthusiasm, as another multiplied with great certainty. Jumping rope while giggling out-loud was a juggling act, at which I struggled. To the girls, it was effortless. During meal time, as we dined on the land’s local harvest, we learned of hopes and dreams, long term goals these small individuals had set for themselves. Further education was a common theme. One clutched her tiny braid between her fingers and spoke about becoming a doctor, while another , “I’ll be a counselor who helps kids one day,” after she gathered the empty bowls from the others around her.
By connecting in these ways, we witnessed perseverance, self confidence and self love, in its highest form. These young ladies, who were once against the odds, granted us the opportunity to feel their present day joy and see firsthand how, with the power of loyalty, patience and unwavering commitment from another, one can flourish, regardless of past circumstances.