Reflections on Zambia April 2022…by Shira Kazakewich, CRNA

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.

With love,

Sasha Suárez Ferreira,

Medical Student,

Costa Rica.


Haven’t been to Guatemala for some years now, but I find myself now in the airport in Houston, excited to join David Kim and his team in Antigua. This trip honors the memory of my Dad…..aka Tony Demos. He truly loved the work we’ve done for the past 27 years, and he found a “second home” in Antigua, his fountain pen and trusty notebook in hand as he and Mike Oleck put their stamp on Surgicorps Guatemala!

I’m honored to be a part of this team, our first since Covid has shut down the world. We’re all happy to be traveling again, doing what we do best……..changing lives one Surgicorps Smile at a time.

~Jack Demos, Surgicorps Founder


Surgicorps International, with a very heavy heart, shares the news of the death of Tony Demos.

Tony and his family helped to define Surgicorps International. Their strong belief in helping others in need has impacted people throughout the world and all of us in the Surgicorps Family.

Some of us had the privilege to be on a Surgicorps team with Tony. We saw firsthand his work ethic, his compassion, and his commitment to Surgicorps. We will cherish those memories forever.

To Jack, Madge, Steve, Sue, Beth, and all of the Demos Family, please know the Surgicorps Family loved Tony and our hearts are with you.

Click here for his obituary


“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
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

Click here for his obituary

Surgicorps remembers Dr. Joanne Oleck

Our Surgicorps International Family lost a wonderful friend and colleague, as Dr. Joanne Oleck passed away after a brief illness on December 12, 2019. Joanne traveled with us to Guatemala yearly from 2007 – 2014, each time accompanied by her devoted husband, Mike. Their loving bond was palpable on each and every trip.

Joanne provided skilled gynecological care with great compassion and understanding.  We were in awe of her strength and determination to overcome all obstacles. Team members will miss her unique humor followed by her quick smile.

Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, family members and many friends and colleagues during this time of loss.

Linda, Jack, and the entire Surgicorps International Family

Click here for her obituary

Surgicorps Kenya 2019 – My Journey to Hekima Place by Melinda Handler

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.

Surgicorps International – Zambia 2019 – by Denis Childs, CRNA

Hmmmm. Where 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.

Zambia was 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 logistics.

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.


Surgicorps International is preparing for its 17th trip to Vietnam from October 26th-November 5th. This will be our final trip of 2019.

Surgicorps 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.

We welcome 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.

Jack Demos 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!

Surgicorps Guatemala 2019: Seamless Humanitarian Integration – In the words of team member, Patricia Ferrer, PA-C

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 classrooms. 

Photos: All buildings had a central atrium.

Photo: Walkway between buildings. 

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 surgical staff.

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.

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