Surgicorps International is packing for our 13th trip to Vietnam from October 28th-November 8th with 29 medical and non-medical team members. This will be our final trip of 2016.
We will once again partner with Odonto Maxillo Facial Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our team this year includes: 17 members from Pennsylvania, 2 from Arizona, 2 from Massachusetts, 2 from Minnesota and 1 each from Missouri, California, Texas, New York, Colorado and Maryland.
Return team members include Thanh Armagost, Tu Armagost, Neal Armagost, Anne Argenta, Andrew Berenato, Mary Bernacki, Bill Bookwalter, Will Bookwalter, Alena Curry, Joan Dunn, Lori Ellis, James Fleck, Alex Hutchinson, Paul Kim, Duc Pham, Jimmy Ricciardi, James Terman, Judy Traister and Charles Yang.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: Donna Bookwalter, Christine Depenthal, Carla Lavrusky, Belinda Lee, John Merrill, Megan Natali and David Nelson.
Jack Demos will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will ensure things run smoothly on all fronts. Liam Carstens, our Executive Director, will make his inaugural trip to Vietnam.
Surgicorps is set to leave for our 6th mission trip to Zambia from September 17th-24th with 23 medical and non-medical team members. We look forward to partnering again with Beit CURE International Children’s Hospital in Lusaka. Our team this year includes: 10 members from Pennsylvania, 7 from Massachusetts, 2 from North Carolina, 2 from Nevada, and 1 each from Virginia and Zambia.
Our returning volunteers include Janet Belitsky, Cliff Bierman, Mary Bierman, Christine Bowman, Tara Burns, Lori Ellis, Rama Joshi, David Kim, John Lagnese, Peg Lagnese, Michele Misher-Harris, Richard Montilla, Bernadette Montilla, Scott Pearson, and Courtney Retzer Vargo.
A warm welcome to several new team members this year as well: Mutande Chisanga, Meredith Deaton, Courtney Garbee, Yuen-Jong Liu, and Stephen Vargo.
Jack Demos will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will be overseeing all aspects of the mission. DeNese Olson will be our Trip Coordinator.
Although all volunteers pay for their own airfare and accommodations and generously donate their time and skills, Surgicorps has additional expenses not covered by volunteers. Please consider visiting our Bon Voyage 2016 Team Zambia Crowdrise campaign here and help us to fund this gap.
Thank you team Zambia for helping Surgicorps serve people in need in Lusaka. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn!
During my three years as an interpreter for Surgicorps, I’ve heard a lot of things that formal Spanish classes and medical translation textbooks simply didn’t prepare me for: a toddler cursing at me in K’iche’ when I had to restrain him from ripping out his IV, two young girls staring at me incredulously when I responded that no, I was not married yet even though I was already 17, and an 80 year old man revealing to me that the secret to a long, healthy life was eating lots of frijoles.
But perhaps the declaration that stuck with me most came from a kindhearted man who had traveled 5 hours to find help for his son who was born with a cleft palate. When I asked if he had any questions about his son’s upcoming surgery, he shook his head and replied, “No. But I would just like to thank all of you for leaving your jobs and your families this week to come to Guatemala. There are so many here who need help, but so few who are willing to provide it.”
This sobering quote put a lot of things into perspective for me. First, I realized how much I take for granted living in a place with such abundant medical resources. When my wisdom teeth started to cause problems, I had my choice of 5 surgeons within a 10 mile radius of my home. When I broke my arm, I was casted that same night. And when I feel something as minimal as a sinus infection coming on, I have the privilege to drop into any of the 15 urgent care clinics in my town and receive an antibiotic. When you are used to such accessible medical solutions, it takes a quote like that to realize that most of the world does not share this same luxury.
And secondly, as I looked at this man holding his son and heard his words repeating in my head, I realized that there was nothing else I would rather do with my life than to be one of “the few” and help those whose circumstances hinder them from receiving the care they need and deserve. After that moment, I knew that I could never be content working in a place where I was an option: one out of 5 doctors in a 10 mile radius that could all treat the same problem, while knowing that somewhere else in the world, I would be someone’s only chance at finding help.
If it weren’t for my time with Surgicorps, I might never have chosen this path. But through these trips, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by volunteers who have shown me what it means to be one of “the few”: selfless, kind, and hardworking medical and nonmedical personnel who invest their time to help those who need it, and who exemplify what can be achieved by using their talents for the good of others. Each year, we see more than 100 patients who travel for hours to receive care for lifealtering deformities and lifethreatening conditions, care that they could not access otherwise. For these people, volunteers like those at Surgicorps are their only hope for a better life.
Although the efforts of “the few” are not enough to heal the whole world, they are enough to make a lasting difference. With each trip to Guatemala, I am continually amazed by what a team of just 30 caring individuals can accomplish in just a week’s time, and by how many lives are changed in the process. My experience with Surgicorps has inspired to continue this type of work, not just for one week out of the year, but for the rest of my life. And with a career built on my Spanish skills along with my medical training, I can only imagine all of the quotes I have yet to hear, both comical and lifechanging.
I have begun my path of transition to retirement. As Surgicorps moves forward, I have moments of great joy and at times much emotion as an observer and a participant. This 2016 trip to Guatemala is special for me and also for our team members here at the Surgicorps’ office. It will be the first team to fulfill the Surgicorps mission led entirely by a volunteer Medical Director and Trip Coordinator. Everyone has put much work and energy to develop ideas, discuss options, and listen to input. It is a work in progress to insure that our mission to help those in need in the developing world continues well in to the future. There is no doubt in my mind that this team will be successful based on the teams that have gone before them to 20 countries over 22 years.
When Surgicorps’ core contains generous donors, tireless volunteers, team members with skilled hands, team members who comfort and show compassionate and patients and their families that touch your heart, Success is guaranteed.
I want you to save the date Saturday June 3, 2017. I want to invite all of you to my home. I hope it will be very crowded. I hope to meet some of you for the first time or hug you once again. It is part of my personal transition to decrease my time but never leave Surgicorps. My home is special. It is where I surround myself with my sisters, their husbands, their children and my friends. It is my core. I want you to come because you have become a part of it. So save the date and details will follow.
So team Guatemala 2016 lead the way to the future and continue the commitment to the Surgicorps mission to provide service to those in need in the developing world.
Our hearts will be with you!
Surgicorps is preparing for our 14th trip to Guatemala from August 6th-13th with a team of 33 dedicated medical and non-medical volunteers. Our team this year includes: 14 members from Pennsylvania, 14 from Massachusetts, 2 from Spain and 1 each from Arizona, Colorado and New York.
Previous Surgicorps team members include Heather Archambeault, Kerry Bennett, Dylan Butt, Kevin Cohen, Beth Demos, Brian Gierl, Amelia Hare, Anne Kamarchik, Ramon Llull, Carlos Mata, Judith McNicholas, Aidan McNicholas, Dave Metro, Farzaneh Nabizadeh, Lynn Novier, Katie Respet and Mark Stoker.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: Sam Bennett, Melinda Desourdy, Amy Hatch, Melanie Hodge, Aina Llull, Nick Metro, Maria Metro, Jonathan Miller, Elise Perz, Katelyn Perz, Amy Shalala, Kylie Shalala, Regina Stoker and Greg Williamson.
David Kim will once again be our Medical Director and Stephanie Charron will be the Trip Coordinator.
Surgicorps thanks each of these volunteers who help make our mission of serving individuals in need in the developing world possible through their commitment of time, energy and resources. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.
It’s been 11 years since I first heard about Surgicorps. While at the University of Pittsburgh completing my masters degree in Nurse Anesthesia I heard a lecture about volunteer anesthesia by members of Surgicorps. I became interested in volunteering overseas during my initial RN training and after hearing this lecture I knew right away Surgicorps would be the group to get involved with.
I have been on 11 trips now including: Guatemala, Vietnam, Bhutan, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Zambia. It has been a great opportunity to help others and give back to those less fortunate. Participating in life changing surgery is such a neat feeling. Fixing a burn scar contracture can improve daily life so a person can walk or use their arm. Repairing a cleft lip can improve a child’s self-esteem so they are not embarrassed to go to school.
The adversity that some patients have to overcome is amazing. Some families have carried their children for days over mountains while sleeping at night without shelter just for the opportunity to be evaluated. I have been able to travel all over the world and see places I never would have otherwise. It has been enjoyable to experience other cultures.
The chance to sample different foods and local cuisine is something I look forward to on every trip. In Vietnam, due to the absence of forks, I learned quickly how use chop sticks. I have made many new friends on these trips. The seamless teamwork that develops between the medical and non-medical personnel is always impressive. I have gained tremendous experience and skills that have helped me to be a better Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist at home.
What will the next 11 years hold for me on Surgicorps trips? You’ll have to check back in 2027!
My first impression of 11 year old Namgay was one of remarkable sadness. Dressed in the traditional red robe that monks wear, his tiny frame appeared younger than his years. Surrounded by the noisy pre-op room filled with patients and their families, he seemed nervous while he waited to be evaluated by the Surgicorps doctors. There was something magnetic about this little boy, and when I looked into his eyes I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had somehow met him before. Knowing that he had been through so much pain and trauma in his short life, I stayed with him to ease his fears.
Namgay was severely burned as a toddler, after crawling into an open fire while his mother was outside milking the yak. It took two days, on foot, for his family to reach the hospital in Punaka, near his hometown. After 7 months of treatment, he was transferred to another hospital in India where he would spend the next year being treated for burns all over his body. Our team thought it was a miracle that he had even survived, given the nature of his wounds.
Namgay’s father entered the monastery to become a monk at the age of 5 and left when he was 17 to care for his aging parents. His father explained that years ago it was common for a family to have at least one male enter the monastery. He went on to say that times have changed and now it is a choice for a child to become a monk. Namgay entered school after returning from India but was teased relentlessly by the other children, making it too painful to continue there.
At 10 years old, Namgay made the choice to become a monk and has been living in a monastery for a year. His father says that now Namgay is happy and often prefers to stay at the monastery, even during break times when he can come home to visit. Namgay’s parents are overjoyed that their son will have the opportunity to learn, and grow, in an environment where others accept him with open arms.
Next year, Namgay will return to be seen again by our surgeons. We will wait, with anticipation, to see this young monk; one who will surely be a little taller, and a little wiser. His gentle nature and piercing eyes have left an indelible mark on all of us, one that will stay with us until we return to the Land of the Thunder Dragon in 2017 for our 11th mission trip. Until we meet again…
Former University of Pittsburgh Women’s Basketball Coach Agnus Berenato traveled with Surgicorps International to Vietnam in 2015 where she met our patient, Le Thi Thanh, featured in this story. As a non-medical volunteer, Agnus interviewed Thanh and captured the details of her 2 year struggle after a kitchen fire burned her face and neck. Surgicorps returns to Vietnam this fall and, with your continued support, anticipates a follow up visit with Thanh.
In Thanh’s words…
One of my favorite things to do is cook. I was in the kitchen preparing dinner for my husband and two children. A long day of work at our coffee shop made us hungry for the meal and family time we were about to share. I was stirring a pot of soup and an explosion took place. I did not hear anything or notice anything remiss with my gas stove. It just exploded.
My husband, close by, wrapped his arms around me, flames on my chest, arms and hands, fire covering my neck shooting upward of my face. He was strong. I felt his love. He picked me up and doused me in the oak bucket of water in the kitchen.
911 was called…I lay in the HCMC Burn Hospital with only pain and fear…I thought I would die. We had no money to pay for treatment or surgery. My only thoughts were of
Two years later, HOPE arrived. Someone sent a picture of my scarred face to a health organization that aids people with no money but big scars. I am the “Lady with No Mouth”. I have dreams of being helped, having surgery, having a mouth again, releasing my neck of burned scar tissue. I dream of food. I dream of smiling. I dream of having grandkids that are not afraid of me. I dream of courage, I used to have that! I dream of not wearing a mask every day, every place. I dream of retirement with my brave husband. I dream of eating any kind of food. I dream of my inner beauty shining through my scars. The health organization came to town.
They would see me. They did not need money. They would not be afraid. They gave me HOPE.
I waited in line to be evaluated. I was so nervous. I had no fear, no pain (because my neck and face were one, as my skin and tissues formed a mass of scarring). I prayed, “Oh my Buddha, please let this group see me fit for surgery. ” Again, it crept back…
When I met with Dr Jack and his Surgicorps team, my fear and sadness disappeared. I could not understand what they were saying, but I felt
Maybe, just maybe, I would get a mouth. That’s all I wanted, a mouth to eat with! Dr Jack said “YES” and I prayed to Buddha again, “Please let me have courage and trust”.
I had my surgery. I had pain, but no fear. I never thought I would die. I can eat all kinds of food. I smile. I have courage. I can laugh. I can shake my head. I am so thankful.
Surgicorps did for me what I could not have done on my own. I had no money, no insurance. I had NO hope. Surgicorps operated on me, gave me a mouth, released my neck, did skin grafts, gave me TLC , hugged me, wiped my tears away.
My constant sadness was replaced by HOPE, a future, a smile, a nod, a dream come true.
I am so thankful and appreciative to the team at Surgicorps. I am so thankful for my friend sending a picture of “The Lady with No Mouth” to Thanh and Linda. I am so thankful that Dr Jack said “YES”. I am so thankful I am no longer “The Lady with No Mouth!”
Surgicorps is preparing to leave for the 2nd Annual Sarah Pettrone Memorial Trip, which will be our 10th visit to Bhutan from April 22-May 3, 2016. Our team members bring a vast amount of talent and resources on each trip to help us change the lives of many. There are a total of 16 team members including 9 from Pennsylvania and 7 from other states.
Michele Misher-Harris, Cliff and Mary Bierman along with Naomi Quillopa and Warren Schubert, Ron Stiller and James Fleck are the veteran Bhutan volunteers. Mike Brett, DeNese Olson, Sara Reardon, and Charles Yang will join us on their first trip to Bhutan. Surgicorps founder, Jack Demos, will lead the medical team and Linda Esposto, Director of Programs and Logistics, will ensure a successful trip for all.
The other team members are first time Surgicorps volunteers and include Donald Laub, Maggie Mangham, and Alexander Preus. We look forward to once again serving our friends in Bhutan. Please follow us on social media for trip updates and pictures.
When I first met Linda Esposto of Surgicorps International I asked her, “Do you have any need for a Basketball Coach?” She replied, “We don’t need a Basketball Coach, but we do need good people.” The wheels in my mind began to turn, and my heart began to pump!
Knowing nothing about Surgicorps or Vietnam, I took a giant leap of blind faith. I was excited to receive details regarding our trip: what to bring (definitely individually wrapped chocolates), daily schedules and visa/flight information, but I still did not know what to expect, or what role I would perform…but the appeal for “good people” kept me motivated.
The introduction to the Surgicorps team took place on a mini bus that transported us to the hospital for Screening Day (an important day to determine who would be scheduled for surgery). Each volunteer and team member shared their name, hometown, and their connection to the Surgicorps cause.
The bus pulled into a small driveway and many people — young and old — were cheering and yelling, waving hello in welcome. I thought, “Why are they here? And, what are they cheering for?” I had only seen this type of fanfare after a team won an important game or championship, but I quickly realized they were here for us! They were here for Surgicorps!
Many of the welcome committee were former patients who returned annually for continued reconstructive surgery by Surgicorps doctors. The joy and tears in their eyes told me I was about to take part in something special. There was Jack (the Medical Director) saying hello and Michele (the Lead Anesthesiologist) hugging and greeting folks like long lost friends. I started my journey with a high five for anyone that would return the offering.
The week was a blur. The amazing Surgicorps team saw 112 patients and performed 73 surgeries. Friendships were made, jokes were told and relationships strengthened. Fatigue set in, humor screamed, and great food was shared.
Countless lives were changed.
Yes, the lives of those with cleft lips and palates, ear reconstructions, burns, and neck releases, but this work also impacted the patient’s families and communities. Many patients are so badly scarred they can’t go to school or rarely leave their home. This team gave hope to every person that was seen. Physical appearance is one thing, but confidence is another and Surgicorps gave every person a little touch of swag!
The doctors were masterful, the nurses amazing, volunteers willing to do whatever was needed, and with Linda as lead, we had an amazing TEAM. Coaching teams has been my business, but I pride myself on being a great teammate. There is no better TEAM than Surgicorps and I am honored to be a new teammate.
My heart melted with every baby I carried, every mom I hugged, every fist I bumped, every high five I gave, every tear I shed and every smile I received. I did things I did not think possible; I learned things I never imagined; and I loved every minute of the experience.
Surgicorps reinforced my belief that there is no “I in TEAM,” and “Teamwork makes the Dream Work.” I find myself praying for the woman who we gave a new mouth, the little girl who had her wrist released, the teenage boy who had ear reconstruction and the mom who sobbed when she saw her baby with an upper lip for the first time. I cry silently to think how lucky I am. Indeed, this was a special game and I was happy to have a uniform.
My emotions run deep for the Surgicorps team that so graciously opened their arms to a Basketball Coach who knew nothing of medicine or surgery. I returned home from Vietnam with a mission: I would be part of a medical trip every year. I dream of next year when the bus pulls in and the cheers are heard and the smiles warm our hearts. I will greet the parade of patients knowingly — with joy, compassion and happiness, because giving is the greatest gift of all. Linda was right, Surgicorps just needs good people!
Learn about the remarkable story of Ruth, a patient from Surgicorps’ 5th trip to Zambia. Read Ruth’s Story…
Surgicorps is preparing to embark on our 12th medical mission to Vietnam from October 30th-November 10th with 21 medical and non-medical team members. This will be our final trip of 2015.
We will once again partner with Odonto Maxillo Facial Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our team this year includes: 10 members from Pennsylvania, 3 from Arizona, 3 from Virginia and 1 each from Canada, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Brian Gierl returns this year as the first attending physician from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was a resident on his first trip to Vietnam in 2011. Willie Manteris will return to provide dental services. Robert Schemmer is excited to expand Surgicorps’ services by providing dermatological care. Other return team members include Thanh Armagost, Tu Armagost, Christine Bowman, Tara Burns, Paul Kim, Michele Misher-Harris, and Duc Pham.
We welcome several new team members this year as well: Agnus Berenato, Andrew Berenato, Janet Belitsky, Jamie Boykin, Caitlin Hickey, Lauren McGrath, Nancy Mitchell, Tran Nguyen and Bruce Yee.
Jack Demos will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto, our Director of Programs and Logistics, will ensure each aspect of the trip runs smoothly.
Best wishes team Vietnam 2015 as you set out to change many lives. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter and most recently on Instagram and LinkedIn!
The air is hot and thick in the makeshift waiting room at Beit CURE Hospital of Zambia, a pediatric teaching hospital specializing in the treatment and care of children living with physical disabilities. There is standing room only in a crowded area where mothers wait with patience for their children to be taken to the OR for surgery. Some have walked great distances with their babies strapped to their backs while others have traveled hundreds of miles by bus.
They hear about Surgicorps through a pipeline of sources; some learn by word of mouth or through a chance radio broadcast. CURE’s staff spreads the word and reaches out as far as Zambia’s Copperbelt (hours away) to provide impoverished villagers with the opportunity for life-changing surgery. Many have waited an entire year for the Surgicorps doctors to return and perform a second and even third surgery. In a country where tribal medicine and natural healing with herbs is still practiced, some of the parents have stepped away from their cultural realm and comfort zone to seek help, out of sheer desperation.
Three operating rooms provide a wide scope of surgeries. Frequently seen in developing countries are children born with extra digits, who come to have extra fingers and toes removed. Because of the use of open flames for cooking, severe burns are also customary in the rural areas of Zambia. Some children suffer from limbs that have literally melted together from burns and undergo surgery to release the contracture, followed by skin grafts. Webbed fingers are separated, cleft lips and palates are repaired, and sometimes an unexpected injury can arrive that will startle even the most seasoned medical professionals. Such was the case with a 3-month-old infant whose young mother brought him in without his left foot and with his bone exposed. The severe injury was presumably caused from a snakebite that went untreated.
There is a common thread amongst these modest, polite, and humble people. They are kind and gentle souls whose love and devotion to their children is palpable. They are unentitled and accepting of all outcomes, even when learning that surgery might not provide the miracle that they had hoped for. They are never with anger, and always with a thank you and gratefulness.
It is in the patient ward that we are able to experience the true essence of these religious and joyful people. They have appreciation for the smallest of things; a new stuffed toy, a sundress, a coloring book with crayons, or a simple bottle of nail polish. For many, their hospital stay is seen as good fortune, mostly because they are assured three meals a day for themselves and for their other children in tow. Although shared, they have a clean bed, an indoor bathroom, and a running shower. There is a sisterhood established amongst them, even those who have met for the first time. We observed each other with a sense of wonder and with admiration.
In our final hour, this group of magnificent mothers joined together and sang for us. They sang in their native language and brought each and every one of us to tears. Through song, they thanked us for changing the lives of their children. Through song, they blessed us, and they blessed our children. They thanked us for giving them back their dignity. It was with pure joy that we basked in the warmth and gratefulness of these beautiful people. We left the Beit CURE Hospital of Zambia knowing that their lives had been changed, that their lives had been bettered because of us. What they didn’t know was how much they had changed our lives. What they didn’t know was that we left wishing that we were a little bit more like them.
As I am packing for my fourth trip with Surgicorps, people often comment “Oh, you are such a good person!!” I’m thrilled that’s what they think, but the truth is I’m really not that good. I do it because it makes me incredibly happy. I have so much fun I just can’t stay home. Each trip is a new adventure. I travel to places I’ve never imagined seeing, with people I’ve never met, to work long hours in hospitals that aren’t exactly like the hospitals at home. I’ve learned new languages, tried new food, followed new customs. I’ve learned to always carry a flashlight, a multi-tool, and duct tape, how to wrap a lungi so it won’t fall off, and how to use a rural Asian bathroom. I’ve made new friends across the world, and seem to have brought a little comedy to the locals with my attempts at speaking new languages.
The cynics say “Oh, you’re trying to save the world”…hardly. But we do make an enormous difference in the lives of the kids lucky enough to be able to reach us. The endless poverty, starvation, illness are unimaginable. I remember the woman and her young daughter burned from having acid thrown in their faces, the couple who lost four children under the age of 5 to illness, the man so severely scarred from diesel burns I couldn’t find his eyes to look at him. There are children that do not fuss, waiting all day for surgery having nothing to eat, and do not cry with exercise or bandage changes.
What impresses me the most is the dignity of the poorest of poor, the grace with which they face unimaginable tragedies and horrific injuries, often from violence. The gratitude of the hospital staff when I show them a simple strap that can help people that lost use of their hands hold an object, and their pride when I ask for information to take home with me to share their skill in building adaptive equipment from nothing but used cardboard boxes and glue. And these people, who seem to have nothing to give, give the most, in one place literally by singing songs of gratitude. (Yes, we all cry!).They teach me the strength of the human spirit, they exemplify that joy and hope can prevail under desperate living conditions.
A message home from my first trip still holds true: “Who would have dreamed that I would pay so much money to travel so far and work so hard and love every second of it”. On each trip I laugh and I cry and I come home with experiences that warm and fill my soul. Pictures and words cannot begin to explain what happens on a Surgicorps trip. I don’t do it to be nice, but doing it does open my heart wider than I ever knew possible. And I know that each time I travel, I come home just a little bit nicer. I give five days of work, what I get back is priceless.