“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Mother Teresa
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
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
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.
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
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.
do I begin? Sitting down and writing about my experience in Zambia is proving
to be the most difficult part of my Zambia mission because every keystroke,
sentence, and paragraph ends up falling short of the actual experience. Simply
put, and at the risk of sounding cliche, participating in this mission was one
of the best experiences of my life.
my third medical mission, but my first as a civilian, and my first with
Surgicorps International. My two previous missions were with the US Navy. One
mission was a month long trip to Mali, along the Niger River providing primary
care, immunizations, and medical education. The other was to Turkey as part of
an emergency surgical response team that flew to Izmit after the devastating
earthquake that killed approximately 45,000 people in 1999. So it was with this
lens that I applied to Surgicorps, both hoping to recapture the importance and
sense of purpose that I felt in the Navy, but also a little nervous that the
trip would not live up to my expectations.
Any fears I
had about this mission being somehow “less” were extinguished on day
one. From our first team meeting the excitement of the returning volunteers was
palpable. Most of us are familiar with Margaret Mead’s quote, “Never doubt
that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Now imagine what can happen
when you have twenty like-minded, highly-skilled, and motivated individuals
working together towards the common goal of bringing life-changing surgery to
the most underserved populations around the world. Good intentions, however, do
not always translate to effective and efficient delivery of care, so I was
pleasantly surprised by how quickly our group of strangers coalesced into a
healthcare team. I credit not only the individual volunteers but also the
leadership team that carefully planned and facilitated all of the on-the-ground
So, is it
worth it? Is it worth the time away from family, the time away from work, the
expense of travel, the 2am wake ups to call home and hear about the kids’ day
at school? Absolutely. We performed 101 surgeries in Zambia this year, and to
say we changed 101 lives fails to capture the change felt by our patients’
families, and it fails to capture how the lives of the 20 volunteers were
forever changed. I made new friends. I fell in love with my career again. I
demonstrated to my daughters what it means to be a global citizen. And I found
a team of incredible healthcare providers that I cannot wait to work with
again. Until next year – Natotela Zambia.
is preparing for its 17th trip to Vietnam from October 26th-November
5th. This will be our final trip of 2019.
will return to the Ho Chi Minh City Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Hospital.
This hospital has made it possible for Surgicorps to expand its specialty
services in HCM to include hand surgery for the 2nd year.
Our 28 team
members hail from California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York
and Pennsylvania. Return team members include Neal Armagost, Thanh Armagost, Tu
Armagost, Cathy Beatty, Mary Bernacki, Donna Bookwalter, Bill Bookwalter, Joanie
Dunn, Elise Dunn, David Kim, Guy Leone, Kim Leone, Richard Montilla, Bernadette
Montilla, DeNese Olson, Scott Pearson, Karen Pitbladdo and Ron Stiller.
several new team members this year as well:
Donna Biersack, Susan DeGregorio, Scott Licata, Michael Nussbaum, Kate
Petty, Tom Taylor, Dakota Wheeler and Nick Yoakum.
will lead the team as Medical Director and Linda Esposto will ensure things run
smoothly on all fronts as our Trip Coordinator.
Best wishes team
Vietnam 2019 as you set out to improve many lives. Stay tuned and follow us, for
trip updates and pictures, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
Being part of the Surgicorps International 2019
Guatemala team felt like being with my family. We are a group of medical
professionals sharing a common goal: to care for those without access to
surgical and medical healthcare. Without knowing anyone on the team it seems we
all knew each other, found our positions, and got to work. It was a week of
seamless integration and collaboration with the Obras Sociales hospital team.
As the days rolled on everyone smoothly found the void they could fill to yield
the best outcomes, naturally.
Sunday was screening day and the waiting area
was packed with triaged patients to be examined by our surgical specialties:
general, hand, gynecology, and plastics. The surgical candidates were
identified and respectively scheduled for the week by our trip coordinator,
Stephanie and her son Dylan.
‘Seamless’ describes working with the Obras
Sociales hospital team. They received our group as if we’d been there for
years: they knew our positions/places and theirs with little said. The patients
were calm and prepared for surgery and cared for compassionately by their and our
recovery room staff.
My first two days were spent with plastic
surgeon Dr. Carlos Mata in the OR as he separated fingers (syndactyly), removed
extra fingers (polydactyly), and repaired cleft lips. On Wednesday Stephanie
asked me to join Dr. Bob Schemmer, a Canadian Dermatologist, in his clinic as
his patient load was increasing daily. As a dermatology PA this was my comfort
zone and we were able to see more patients and keep a flow going while also
documenting in the hospital’s EHR system, in Spanish. With hospital RN Sylvia,
the 3 of us worked well together.
On Thursday, our dermatology clinic ended at 2pm
and Dr. Schemmer recommended we go to Obras Sociales auxiliary hospital for
disabilities, where wheelchair bound children and adults resided due to various
life-long disabilities (cerebral palsy, microcephaly, etc). The hospital
arranged transportation and took us directly to the facility.
Photo: Entrance to
Virgen del Socorro Hogar.
Virgen del Socorro Hogar de Niños y Adultos
Especiales was on the edge of Antigua surrounded by beautiful lush green-belts.
The buildings are 2 years new and in the typical Central American-Spanish
colonial style with thick walls and central atriums and every area lit with
natural lighting. The medical director took us on a tour and notified each
floor to prepare any patients in need of dermatology care. Again, ‘seamlessly’
we went to each floor (they were divided by gender and age groups: babies and
toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and elders), saw many common dermatitides,
made our recommendations and kept moving. The ‘hogar’ was so clean and had a
homey feel, the staff was attentive and caring and the medical director seemed
to be a mother to all. They have 240 residents and more than 300
employees and 6 full-time rotating
doctors. I wondered if we had such a place equal in the US, as this was one of
the most beautiful and peaceful health institutions I’ve ever seen.
Photo: One of several
Photos: All buildings
had a central atrium.
Photo: Walkway between
My single most pleasant experience was with a 59
year-old healthy female patient that presented with a 7 year history of
pigmented brown macules on her lower lip, finger tips, bottom of her feet and
dark streaking of a few toenails. Clinically this looked ominous but with close
evaluation something did not make sense. We informed her to return 2 days later
to biopsy a couple of the most suspicious lesions to rule out cancer (we suspected
metastatic melanoma but her healthy disposition ruled against this). This
bought me time to research and consult with a US dermatology colleague and we
were able to pin the diagnosis: Laugier-Hunziker Syndrome, a rare benign
condition in which no treatment is warranted. Two days later the patient
returned with her daughter and we informed them of the good news and gave them
literature describing the condition. They were tearfully grateful this was not
grave and they had an answer. Their relief, ‘bendigas’, and ‘muchisimas
gracias’, swelled my heart with joy and felt we served them well.
Photo: Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro
The week closed with both US/Guatemalan teams showing appreciation and support and gratitude shown by all patients and their families. I left with the satisfaction of being part of a humanitarian family from two different parts of the world. In the end, we the givers, are the receivers.
Zambia 2019 Team departs on September 14th and returns on the 21nd
with 20 medical and non-medical team members. We look forward to partnering
again with Beit CURE International Children’s Hospital in Lusaka. Our team
members hail from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota, and Ohio.
returning volunteers include Heather Archambeault, Diane Bremer, Tara Burns,
Christine Depenthal, Lori Ellis, Brian Gierl, Betty Hearne, Derrin Jarvis, Rama
Joshi, David Kim, Darren LePere, John Merrill, and Jimmy Ricciardi.
welcome to our new team members this year: Denis Childs, Julie LePere, Paul Rollins, Chris Sheerer
and Melissa Shelby.
Jack Demos returns
as Medical Director and DeNese Olson, Director of Operations and Outreach, is the
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!
is preparing for our 17th trip to Guatemala from August 3th-10th with a team of
36 dedicated medical and non-medical volunteers. Our team this year includes: 10
members from Pennsylvania, 24 from other states, 1 from Canada and 1 from Costa
looks forward to working with hospital staff at the Obras Sociales del Santo
Hermano Pedro Hospital again in Antigua.
Surgicorps team members include Dylan Anthony, Pat Avis, Cliff Bierman, Mary
Bierman, Cathy Boyle, Kevin Cohen, Brian Gierl, Anne Hardart, Don Hare, Amy
Hatch, Meghan Lauze, Carlos Mata, Farzaneh Nabizadeh, Jonathan Pelusi, Nagamalli
Ramakrishna, Drake Sadler, Robert Schemmer, Sean Whelan and Etain Williams-Asplund.
several new team members this year as well: Douglas Adams, Patricia Auger, Marc
Auger, Annie Bass, Cathy Beatty, Maria Beatty, Jane Camero, Alexandra
Chalifoux, Beth Van Dusen, Patricia Ferrer, Michael Gemma, Deanne Hagerty,
Brenda Mathews-Vitello, Julia Meisler, and Sasha Suarez-Ferreira. David Kim
returns as Medical Director and Stephanie Charron will be the Trip
launched the Bon Voyage Crowdrise fundraiser and hope that the Guatemala team
members, and others, will once again participate in raising money to support
our general Guatemala fund. These donations support the purchase of medical
supplies and shipping costs amongst other expenses.
is grateful to these generous individuals who help make our shared mission of
serving individuals in need around the world possible through their commitment
of time, energy and resources. Stay tuned and follow us, for trip updates and
pictures, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
What can I
say? We have been working with surgicorps for many years now, I have to count
my collection of Tshirts to find our how many trips you guys did to Zambia.
We fell in
love with you at first sight, we loved the team, we loved the passion, the
attitude towards the patients and all our staff, we loved the reliability and
the great technical skills. And all patients loved you guys more than my words
can say, They will sing for you at the end of the week once again at your next
all you do
suspect that you will get many quotes from many places talking about how you’ve
dramatically improved the quality of life for so many people, which is most
certainly true for Samoa as well. Perhaps to change it up a bit, I would share
what the Samoan surgical team said about you all, and that was “Surgicorps was
the only visiting medical team that actually had their lunches in the staff quarters
with us. Most visiting teams go out for lunch or perhaps eat a little something
privately, but Surgicorps share food with us every day and really took the time
to get to know us as people.
I have been blessed to
be part of the Surgicorps team in organizing the medical trip for the skilled
individuals willing to give of their talents, professions and compassion to my
homeland where I grow up as a small girl.
I congratulate for
seeing into the future to knows the needs and wanting to help others that are
not able to accomplish these procedures by themselves.
Thank you from the
bottom of my heart to all the team members of Surgicorps past, present and
With respect always and
Love you all.
Thank you so much for
email me. Please send my congratulations to the Surgicorp and the short message
I would like to send you is:
“The staff of the 1A
Hospital” in Hochiminh city would like to send their sincerest gratitude to
Surgicorp which is celebrating its 25th year. Over the past two
years, Surgicorp with their outstanding plastic surgeons and amazing volunteers
have improved the lives of countless patients with cleft lip and palates
repairs, burn scar revisions, and stabilization of congenital limb deformities.
We are so happy that Surgicorp will continue to work with us in the future and
we look forward to your return.
Dr Duong Phan
on the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of Surgicorps!!
You must be
busy with all the preparation for the big party. Please convey my best wishes
to Dr. Jack and to all at Surgicorps. I am currently on leave and spending some
time in Korea with my husband. I will be back in Bhutan on the 22nd of
I wanted to
acknowledge receipt of your mail and of course I will be happy to sent in a
message. You must have heard that Her Majesty The Queen Mother’s father passed
away in May at the age of 95. The Royal Family has been rather tied up with all
the prayer services, and receiving guests and citizens alike who come to pay their
respects. Under the circumstances I hesitate to request Her Majesty for a
message, but I will mention that you are celebrating Surgicorps 25th year of
service to humanity and we will take it from there.
of love and fond remembrances,
Dr.Jack and Linda,
extremely sorry for the delay in sending the message across on time. The ADC
has been able to get Her Majesty sign on it only yesterday, Her Majesty is
still at Punakha and there were prayer sessions for HMQM’s late father due to
which the letter as not put up.
attached the scanned copy of the letter and we would like to send the original
copy by ems, please send us an address.
best wishes on the Silver Jubilee of the Surgicorp International and thank you
again on behalf of all the lives your team has transformed in Bhutan and around
the globe. May the team always be blessed with good health and wellbeing to
continue the noble task.
In honor of Surgicorps International’s 25th anniversary celebration, volunteers have shared some memorable moments and thoughts here:
“This donation in honor of my daughter has it’s roots in Surgicorps that planted the fertile seed waiting to grow in my daughter, Charlotte’s, heart. As a mother I was able to see the seed germinate on her Surgicorps trip as we traveled together to Guatemala. My husband and I watered that seed with support in many tangible and intangible ways. Today she is an ophthalmology resident pursuing dreams of preserving vision. Thank you Surgicorps and esp Jack Demos, MD.” ~ Surgicorps Volunteer
Here are some photos of other volunteers on trips!
surgical mission to Bhutan resulted in 118 patients being screened and 60
people receiving surgery. In addition, 168
people received knee injections to ease hard-working, arthritic joints. Bhutan is truly a magical, mythical place and
the Bhutanese are quiet, humble and lovely people. To be involved in this work is moving,
gratifying and eye-opening for the volunteers who make the journey. In the face
of discomfort and long waiting times the patients and their family members are
deeply appreciative for the important, life-changing surgery provided by Surgicorps
International. Here are some of their
Dawa Tshering is a
60 year old farmer who lives south of Paro in a town called Shaba. He lives with his wife at a higher elevation
than his relatives. One early evening
about 6 months ago he was making his way down the hill to see his relatives,
walking on a path with tall bushes and beside a drain trough. He saw a black animal that he thought was a
wild boar, so he shouted at it. It
wasn’t a boar after all; it was a Himalayan black bear and very dangerous!!
The bear swiped its
powerful and sharp claws at him and took off his right ear. He was knocked down a small bank into a rice
paddy. That may have been good fortune
because the bear shuffled away instead of continuing the attack. He was in shock and did not realize the
extent of his injuries. He returned home
but then saw how much he was bleeding.
He called his niece, Gyem, and told her he had been “eaten” by a
bear. She thought the attack was ongoing
and in panic, sent out a group of men on foot to rescue Dawa. Realizing he was home and now safe, his
relatives cleaned the wound and took him to the hospital. The surgeons asked for the ear and the family
located it and brought it back to Thimphu in a jar. It had been outside on the ground overnight
and it was too late to reattach it. The family provided a proper spiritual
ending to the severed body part by setting it afloat in the Thimphu River. The initial repair treatment closed the ear
canal leaving him quite deaf. Dawa was
fairly anxious about a surgery but was hoping it would result in improved
hearing. The Surgicorps’ surgeon
reconstructed his ear canal to enlarge it. The following morning when doctors
were making rounds, he was smiling broadly and telling us that he could hear
Kul Bahadur Tamang is 47, from Samdrup Jongkhar, in the southeast, two days driving distance from Paro. He is a switchboard operator at a Bhutan Power Corporation. When he was 5 or 6 years old, he was out with a group of other children to attend to the cattle grazing, without adult supervision. The kids started a fire and he must have been too close. His t-shirt caught on fire. The kids were able to put the fire out, remove his shirt and take him home. Thankfully, he does not remember the pain of the extensive burn under his right arm. Burn scars contract over the years and this man had not been able to lift his arm up over his head for some time. The skin in his armpit had been stretched to the point that it appeared webbed between his upper arm and his torso. Doctors were able to release the contracture and he is currently in the process of healing. He and his wife Sukreni are very glad that this surgery will help him have greater mobility.
Update on Sonam
Rigsel Dorji: Those who follow the
Bhutan blog will remember the little boy who had severe burns and extensive
scaring on his legs. He was first
treated by Surgicorps doctors in 2016 and his mother, Tshering, made the 2-day
journey to Paro with Sonam and his little sister for continued treatment in
2017 and in 2018. It required a series
of surgeries to release the burn scar, remove scar tissue and graft new skin to
the sites. Sonam appeared at the hospital for a review by the doctors again this
year. He was walking easily, running,
jumping, bending over and kicking a soccer ball around. He reported that there was nothing bothering
him, and Dr. Demos declared his treatment a success. His mother cried grateful tears and expressed
her heartfelt appreciation for the medical repair work that has resulted in
full mobility for her young son.