Kim Rosinski OTR/L, CHT, CSCS
“You are so brave.” “I could never do that.” “Do you need a ton of vaccines to do that?” “Wow, OK, that’s really scary.” “Are you afraid of the malaria medication side effects?” “I’m so proud of you.” These are the responses I heard when I told people I was going on a hand surgery medical mission trip to Africa. This response was not just from my family and friends, but also from my colleagues and my own health care providers.
Ever since I realized that knowledge of the specialty of hand surgery and therapy was limited in most countries, I have wanted to do this type of work. To spread this valuable knowledge. I never thought of this desire as brave, scary, or something to be proud of. I thought of it as necessary, an obligation to be fulfilled in my profession…someday…at some point in my life—but for many years I had excuses for putting this trip off. Now, this is something I regret I didn’t start sooner.
The reaction to my mission trip surprised me and left me wondering: What is stopping more healthcare providers from contributing in this way? How can I convince more people to consider this type of community service, professional development, and self-growth? Not to put off this desire to “someday?’ I hope the answer is to spread answers to the possible reasons why people may not consider this activity in their realm of possibility.
First, if you are anxious about being in a third-world country, do your research! There are plenty of organizations out there that repeatedly go to the same locations and have established relationships with the hospital, hotel, and transportation that will be provided. I chose Surgicorps International exactly for this reason. They make multi-year commitments to specific countries. I was on their 14th trip to Beit CURE Children’s Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. Lusaka is the largest city in Zambia, and the primary language is English. The hospital’s campus had a college campus feel with Wi-Fi, air conditioning in the operating theaters, food, and bottled water provided for everyone. Both locals and far-off tribes know to come to this nonprofit hospital for free, specialized care for their children.
The moment we stepped on campus, our team integrated with their staff immediately and went to work. It was a well-oiled machine organized by the ever-calm DeNese, their Director of Operations. She made sure everyone knew their roles for every day and what to do to prepare themselves to effectively fulfill their roles. The Beit CURE staff was familiar with the itinerary and welcomed our knowledge without hesitation. It was inspiring to see all of these people come together so quickly with the common goal of helping as many kids as possible in the six days we had, knowing there would be physical follow-up from us again in six months.
The top priority of Surgicorps is to make sure the entire team is safe. This is apparent throughout the entire process. From the moment I was accepted onto the team, the portal was easy to use to complete all the paperwork and provided every little tidbit of information to prepare for your trip that you could possibly think of. A hand therapist who had been to that location many times before reached out to me to give me specific advice for my success as a hand therapist at this location, and I was given contact information for the other hand therapist I would be working with. DeNese quickly answered all of the stupid questions I emailed her, and somehow she never made me feel stupid for asking all of these questions! A team Zoom meeting occurred before the trip so you could meet everyone on the team from around the country, and the entire week’s process was reviewed. Surgicorps also provided emergency medical evacuation insurance.
Since vaccination is a hot topic currently, I will just state what I did for this trip. After visiting my infectious disease doctor, she recommended Hep A and Typhoid (orally for Typhoid). This visit could have been addressed even easier by visiting your CVS Minute Clinic since they provide the same services for travel. I was given a prescription for Malarone for malaria. I took this as instructed and had no side effects. Neither did anyone else on my trip. By taking the proper precautions that one would take to visit a third-world country, I never felt this was the issue that I had made it out to be in my head!
What held me back from doing this sooner? Mom guilt. How can I leave my family for that long? What if I’m the one who gets sick and cannot fulfill my mom duties? Is it worth the risk? Now that I’ve completed my first mission trip, going with an organization that has mastered their routine, the fear of risk for future trips is not there. As for the mom guilt, my family survived. My daughter was so proud of me and what I was doing that she even posted a reel on her Instagram about it. Making me think: “Why didn’t I provide this type of role model for her earlier?”
It’s cliché to say I got back more than I gave, but it’s true. I really cannot even attempt to put into words all of the emotions, lessons, and growth this trip provided for me. As Surgicorps Team Zambia walked to our bus to leave the hospital for the final time, after the celebration of songs and testimonials that brought all the tears, the staff, patients, and family followed us all the way to the bus. They were continuing their songs, taking pictures of us like we were rock stars, and thanking us over and over for coming to help their children. One mother hugged me and said, “I pray you come back with your knowledge; we need your knowledge to come back.”
She’s right—our knowledge needs to come back. They are working with limited resources and seek knowledge. I implore you to share your knowledge. Even if you think you’ve only had one year of experience, and that’s not enough, you’re wrong. You have the knowledge they seek, and you will learn so much more about yourself and clinically. If you’re on the fence, consider this type of service. Help me send more knowledge back to Zambia to answer this woman’s prayers for her child.
Mary Barnes, MOT, CHT, CIDN, and Adam Crelling, MS, OTR/L, CHT, were honored to join the 2023 Surgicorps Mission in Ho Chi Minh City. In addition to fabricating custom orthotics and providing education for post-operative patients, Adam and Mary provided conservative care to non- surgical patients. Mary and Adam were very grateful to have the opportunity to work, collaborate and learn from Surgicorps hand surgeons Cathy Tang, MD, Rich Montilla, MD, and Warren Schubert, MD.
Having the benefit of previously serving in Vietnam, the hand therapists were able to bring much needed supplies including shoulder pulleys, custom neck supports, stockinette, scar management tools, home exercise programs, and education for scar management. All supplies were purchased or procured by the hand therapists.
Patient performing pulley exercises one day post-op axillary burn scar release.
Mary Barnes providing conservative splinting for a TBI patient.
Mary and Adam were joined by Alexei Lyapustin, PT. In addition to assisting in the OR, Alexei provided important post-op care to neck and shoulder patients.
Alexei Lyapustin, PT, and Ron Stiller, MD, providing care in the recovery room.
Making a lasting difference
Adam and Mary were excited to work with PT and OT employees of Ho Chi Minh City Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Hospital. These skilled and compassionate therapists assisted SurgiCorps as interpreters and shadowed Adam and Mary. They were eager to follow-up with our patients to ensure great continuity of care. SurgiCorps hand therapists donated all leftover supplies including thermoplastic material, Velcro, OTS orthotics, silicone putty and foam for scars, pulleys, scissors, goniometers, theraband and therapy tape.
Quyen Pham, OT; Mary Barnes, OT, CHT; Adam Crelling, OT, CHT; Dr. Duong Phan
Surgicorps volunteer helps establish Vietnam’s first Hand Therapy Society.
Surgicorps volunteer Mary Barnes has taught hand therapy and orthotics courses in the United States and internationally through the American Society of Hand Therapists and other organizations.
This year Mary taught a two-day Hand Therapy and Orthotics course at Ho Chi Minh University of Medicine and Pharmacy, sponsored by the following professors:
- Pham Ngoc Dat, MOT, BPT, professor of Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation at the Ho Chi Minh University of Medicine and Pharmacy, specializing in orthopedics and musculoskeletal conditions;
- Nguyen Huynh Ngoc Mai Tram, MOT, BPT, professor of Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation at the Ho Chi Minh University of Medicine and Pharmacy, specializing in Mental Health and Psychosocial Rehabilitation; and
- Le Thanh Van, Msc. PT, Head of the Rehabilitation Department, Ho Chi Minh University of Medicine, and Pharmacy.
Over thirty eager professionals completed the course, including the following OTs and PTs from Ho Chi Minh City Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Hospital: OTs Pham Thi Quynh Quyen, Hoang Thi Diem, Tran Trieu Vuong Dung, and Ho Le Trung, and PTs Phung Khai Vinh and Pham Nguyen Tu Uyen. Many of these dedicated professionals also volunteered as interpreters for SurgiCorps.
Providing training in the use of materials that have limited availability locally is not a sustainable solution. In addition to teaching orthotic fabrication with thermoplastics, Mary purchased and donated a 3D printer to the university. The cost of the 3D printer was around $300 USD, but the cost of the plastic is very inexpensive (pennies per orthosis). In addition to orthotics, 3D printers can also produce assistive devices and equipment such as goniometers, grippers, cup holders. The possibilities are endless.
With the support and encouragement of the International Federation of Societies of Hand Therapy (IFSHT), the course participants are forming Vietnam’s first Hand Therapy Society and joining IFSHT as an Associate member. IFSHT also noted a goniometer to the university.
Professors Pham Ngoc Dat, MOT, BPT, and Nguyen Huynh Ngoc Mai Tram, MOT, BPT, posing with the 3D printer. Professors Nguyen Huynh Ngoc Mai Tram, MOT, BPT, and Pham Ngoc Dat, MOT, BPT, posing with the dynamometer, donated by IFSHT. Course attendees displaying their newly fabricated anti-claw orthosis. Course attendee displaying an assortment of splints that she fabricated during the course, including the 3D printed wrist orthosis. Mary Barnes instructing orthotic fabrication. Attendee posted the above image to social media with the following caption: “Thank you Ms. THS Mary Collier Barnes and the GV BM PHCN – VLTL for enabling me to participate in a very useful class on theoretical and practical knowledge.” Course attendees successfully applying their knowledge of orthotic fabrication. Course attendees participating in orthotics lab. Participants did an amazing job fabricating a complex dynamic orthosis. Many thanks to the course attendees and faculty sponsors from Ho Chi Minh University of Medicine and Pharmacy!
In the beginning of November, Surgicorps concluded another great Surgical Mission in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was the 19th trip to Vietnam and the second trip to a new hospital for Surgicorps in Vietnam. Over 80 patients were helped. The majority of our patients were young children, though many adults were treated as well. Operations included cleft lip, cleft palate, congenital hand and complex burn scar reconstruction. Unique on this mission, four residents joined us . Three of our residents are plastic surgery residents and one an anesthesia resident. A University of Minnesota study has found that 50 percent of our residents who have an experience like the Surgicorps mission during their training go on to be involved with missions during their careers after the completion of their training.
Surgicorps is excited to be planning a return to Vietnam this next year and continue to work to improve the lives of the poorest of the poor in Vietnam.
You are probably already aware of the Surgicorps mission, so I will get right down to it and leave you with a few impressions from my first visit to Zambia.
What comes to mind when you think of the country Zambia? A hot, dry, third world African nation? Yes, it is that but oh so much more.
The Beit CURE Children’s hospital sits on a lovely college like campus, six one story brick buildings surrounded by green grass, swing sets and a playground. All of the staff speak perfect English and they welcomed us with open arms, ready to help with anything necessary to ensure a successful week. I was wondering how my OR back home would respond if a team arrived and we had to work side by side with strangers…we probably would be defensive with bruised egos. The CURE staff responded with such kindness and humility. The people are soft spoken and gracious, full of joy and faith. As a Christian, faith based hospital, there is a lot of singing, clapping and praise to God.
The week starts with screening Sunday, with many to see in a limited time. It is just heart breaking that some will wait in the heat for hours and hope will be dashed as there aren’t enough hours in the day to see and treat them all. It makes you want to stay for months to help everyone, not just a week to help a lucky few.
The biggest leap of faith comes from the mothers. They don’t know us from a hill of beans but trust us with their most prized possession. They hand over their babies and children to us and most of the older kids walk into the OR without so much as a peep. Their trust in us is humbling!
I worked side by side with strangers I had just met but then become fast friends who gel within hours into an amazing, hard working team. Surgicorps recruits the most talented, caring, kind and fun staff to go on each trip, and we all bond over our common goal of helping others.
We had five days of surgery and helped 73 kids! There were a lot of tears as the CURE team sang to thank us for the week and sent us off with joy in our hearts and a little sadness to be leaving. The week flew by!
We even had a pickle ball clinic! Four women from Pittsburgh brought nets, paddles and balls to introduce the game at a clinic across the street from the hospital. They touched many lives serving those in a different capacity, but still serving. They worked hard in the heat!
This was my second Surgicorps trip, the first to Zambia and I always leave with more than I came with. I come home tired but with a renewed sense of purpose and a reminder to appreciate what I have and to live with gratitude!
Thanks to Dr. Jack Demos for your vision so many years ago! And thanks to DeNese for keeping us on time, on track and safe with a calming voice that never got flustered.
It was an honor to be part of this amazing team.
Jodi Yingling, BSN RN CNOR RNFA
Brett Yingling, BSN RN
When DeNese asked us to write a blog for our most recent Surgicorps trip to Guatemala, I felt that I needed to give everyone a background of how this all began for us.
I had always had a goal to do a mission trip to a foreign country to help those less fortunate than myself by donating my time and talents in Operating room nursing. Traveling back about 25 years, another RN and myself were discussing my wish in the Operating Room when she told me that she knew just the organization that I needed to contact to make my wishes come true. She wrote down the name of Surgicorps and Dr. Jack Demos’ name and told me that they were traveling to other countries to provide free surgical services to people in need. Our children were young at the time and I could not plan a mission at that time. I always carried that piece of paper in my wallet, moving it everytime I changed wallets.
Fast forward 25 years, our kids are out of college and the house. I pulled that piece of paper out of my wallet and told my husband that it was time and I was going to apply for a mission trip with Surgicorps. I applied and was accepted to go to Guatemala in 2017. My husband supported my decision and drove me to the Pittsburgh airport, dropped me off and said Goodbye.
I didn’t know anyone on the team and roomed with an Occupational Therapist from Boston. The week was life changing for me. I got to do what I love, (Surgeries), and felt blessed with a full heart when I returned.
My husband is also a Registered Nurse in Surgical Trauma ICU. When he saw my excitement to return to Guatemala to do another mission trip, he said he wanted to volunteer as well. He said, “I’m not an Operating Room Nurse, but I’m sure there is something that I can do”. So, he applied as well and was accepted to go to Guatemala the following year. Our team became unexpectedly short on OR nurses, so Stephanie, the trip coordinator, asked my husband if he would be willing to “fill in” as an OR nurse. He chuckled and said “I will do anything you need as long as the surgeon knows I’m not an OR nurse”. So, he became an OR nurse for the week. The surgeons were all very patient and kind and he found his niche.
Two more Guatemala trips since that time, and we feel like a well oiled machine with a family that work together with a common goal in mind. After completing 105 surgeries this year with a lean crew, we left Guatemala with tired legs and achy feet, but a very full heart. And completing the 100th Surgicorps mission was the icing on the cake for all!
We are so appreciative to have the opportunity to help the people of Guatemala receive the care they need, and we are grateful to Surgicorps for allowing us to fulfill our humanitarian service. We look forward to future mission trips with Surgicorps!
When I was five years old, I had an accident in a Kenya boarding school. I severely broke my left arm. The doctors wanted to amputate my arm. A group of volunteer nuns believed I had a chance to have a full recovery with orthopedic surgery and follow-up intensive physical therapy. I believe God used those nuns to give hope to my parents. Today, I am a miracle that testifies to the goodness of humanitarian people who had faith of what is possible. I have deep passion when it comes to children. To see a child smile and not be worried about life is the greatest joy that fills my heart. I was a member of the Surgicorps Zambia team of 21 volunteers that brought hope to the children and their parents for a chance, with surgery, for a normal life.
Wahamba nathi, oh wahamba nathi (You walked with us, oh you walked with us)
Oh, wahamba nathi, siyabonga (Oh you walked with us, we thank you)
This song expressing gratitude was sung in harmony together as we were walking through the childrens’ ward at The Beit Cure Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia on the final day of our mission. The voices……a combination of children, their families, the hospital staff and our Surgicorps team. We sang and danced. Our hearts were full of joy and laughter as we celebrated side by side with the people of Zambia.
Walking together on day one…….We screened over 150 cases, many of them heart-breaking, and yet there was hope! Parents walked with hope from the screening rooms to see the anesthesia team, waiting for that final OK for the surgery their children so desperately needed.
Walking together day two to day five
The surgeries were from Monday to Friday with dressing changes also on Friday. I was expectedly nervous on the first day, but those butterflies quickly disappeared. Everyone on the team in the operating room walked together with the purpose of changing one child at a time. My emotions welled up seeing such treatable disabilities, but due to hard circumstances, the children had been living with these conditions. Eighty-one successful surgeries were performed on children ranging from one year old to eighteen years. I was amazed at the dedication of our team and the CURE hospital staff in walking together to care for each child.
Asante sana (thank you very much) sincerely to be part of the humanitarian kindness to these beautiful children.
I wanted to thank God for this opportunity to be able to go to Zambia to minister to the children and they ministered to my heart. They opened my mind to wanting to return to be with them, walk with them again, and celebrate their progress. I look forward to seeing all of them, especially Kevin, a 12-year-old boy, who said he wants to become a doctor. I connected to his passion to care for others. He now will be able to grow up, go to school, not be worried about his scars and dream about becoming someone great to change the world.
Opportunity is everything. Surgicorps gave me an opportunity to travel to Zambia in April 2023. That opportunity turned out to be a gift—a chance to meet and learn from the Surgicorps team, the staff at Beit CURE Children’s Hospital of Zambia, and the patients and their families.
The opportunity to receive treatment from a surgeon in the U.S. is available if a child is born without all the bones in her forearms necessary to hold her hands straight or born with fingers or toes fused together or an extra digit or two. And the opportunity for treatment is readily available in the U.S. if a child suffers severe burns—treatment that minimizes scarring and the loss of mobility. In Zambia, however, the opportunity for treatment is limited. More than ten years ago, Jack Demos, the founder of Surgicorps, saw the need in Zambia, and just as he has done in other places around the world, he set out to provide opportunities for children to get the surgery they need. April 2023 was Dr. Demos’s 13th mission trip to Zambia. Surgicorps now has given hundreds of Zambian children the opportunity to live more confidently, with less pain and more freedom of movement.
DeNese Olson coordinated the April 2023 trip and ran the mission with exceptional grace and compassion—and like a well-oiled machine. The Surgicorps team which included Jack, DeNese, Anne, David, Aamir, Tom, Kelsey, Scott, Pete, Jacob, Eric, Kate, Jenny, Kelly, Lori, Jenn, Lesley, Elizabeth, Lonnie, and Agnus went above and beyond and used their skills to provide opportunities to others in extraordinary ways. In Zambia, they dedicated themselves to providing the same excellent quality of care their patients receive in the U.S.
The week in Zambia began with screening day, when more than 150 children came to be evaluated for surgery. I worried that some would be turned away, but only those for whom surgery was not medically indicated and those who were told to come back for a specific kind of surgery when Surgicorps returns in September were sent home. Surgicorps gave everyone else—81 children—an opportunity to receive the surgery they needed. The medical team, with the assistance of the Beit CURE staff, treated them all with great skill and compassion.
All of these children were memorable, but one will stick with me forever. On screening day, Jeff walked into the evaluation room wearing a long-sleeved hoodie with the hood up, covering most of his head and face. He didn’t complain about the burn scars on his face, neck, arms and chest, or the large keloids on his ears—he covered them up, but he didn’t complain. He didn’t complain about the accident that left these scars, the horrific pain he had suffered, or the inability to fully lift his arms because of the scarring. We tapped a ball back and forth to pass the time as he waited for surgery, and after surgery, he taught me how to play Crazy Eights. He didn’t complain before the surgery, and he didn’t complain after surgery, even though surgery meant cutting his ears, under his arms, and near his elbow and taking a graft from his leg. Without saying anything, he taught me what resiliency and strength look like.
Before the Surgicorps team left Zambia, we joined the Beit CURE staff for a celebration of the week’s accomplishments, and Jeff danced with the Surgicorps team, wearing a sleeveless shirt, no hoodie, and a smile. I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity to meet Jeff and the other children and see the opportunities and joy that the Surgicorps medical team gave them.
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