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
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!
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.
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.
“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!