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.


Surgicorps 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.

Our 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.

A warm 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 Trip Coordinator.

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!


Surgicorps 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 Rica.

Surgicorps looks forward to working with hospital staff at the Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro Hospital again in Antigua.

Previous 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.

We welcome 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 Coordinator. 

Surgicorps 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.

Surgicorps 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.

Surgicorps’ 25th Anniversary…in the words of our country partners:


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 trip.

Thanks for all you do



I 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 future.

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.

Many hugs,


Dr Duong Phan


Congratulations 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 July. 

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.

With lots of love and fond remembrances, 


Dear Dr.Jack and Linda,

We are 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. 

Kindly find attached the scanned copy of the letter and we would like to send the original copy by ems, please send us an address. 

Sending our 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.

With all our 💛

Tarayana  family

Yours faithfully

Sonam Pem

Tarayana Foundation


Looking back…celebrating Surgicorps’ 25th anniversary!

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!

Dr. Michele – Misher Harris with patients in Vietnam in the above photo and below with Dr. Janet Belitsky in Zambia.

13th Surgicorps Mission to Bhutan: Why We Do it! In the words of Merelise O’Connor

The 13th 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 stories:

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 again! 

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.

Samoa 2019: In the words of volunteer Margaret Mallady

I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of the second Samoan mission. As a first time member of a Surgicorps team, I didn’t know what it would be like. While on the final leg of my journey there, the plane full of Samoan travelers had a relaxed, chatty vibe that was an introduction to the personality of the residents.

The patients we saw also were relaxed, brave, grateful and just generally enjoyable. The personnel from Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital were pleasant and helpful, highly professional and welcoming.

My job as an operating room nurse was to either circulate or scrub on cases that would be routine in the U.S., but were a big deal for the Samoans who had tolerated their lesion, or their problem for years, needing surgery.

One teen who had surgical repair of his burn contractures of his hand was so grateful and hopeful that he would soon be able to play his piano and guitar.  He was fitted for post-op splints by our occupational therapist. An absolutely vital step for successful treatment for him.

Another child of about 9 years walked in the O.R. with his father, both smiling widely, and so pleased to be having a big surgery. He has a very large black facial birthmark over more than a third of his face and eye. The first stage was to remove the cheek portion and reconstruct with a skin graft.

Other patients had masses removed with beautiful plastic closures, repair of birth defects such as cleft lip and palate, or dermoid cysts, lipomas, and other lesions.

I was honored to be a part of these life-altering services. Working with the dedicated team from Surgicorps was inspiring. Their skills in patient care, combined with gentleness and compassion were quick and efficient.  The portion of the team screening and readying patients for surgery was skilled and efficient as well.  The work flowed smoothly due to good planning, love, and care.

I feel blessed and honored to have been a part of this group, and thankful to have been invited to join them.

Spotlight on 2019 Team Bhutan

Surgicorps will embark on our 13th visit to Paro, Bhutan from March 23 to April 2, 2019. A total of 12 talented and dedicated team members including 6 from Pennsylvania and 6 from other states will participate in fulfilling our mission of providing free surgical and medical services to people in need around the world.

We have 9 previous Surgicorps volunteers: Anne Argenta, Michele Misher-Harris, Merelise O’Connor, Naomi Quillopa, Warren Schubert, and Ron Stiller. Surgicorps Founder, Jack Demos, returns as Medical Director and Trip Coordinators will be Sheryl Lamb and Megan Natali.

Joining these experienced team members, we welcome 3 new volunteers: Courtney Mechling, Alex Praslick and James Swift. We look forward to once again serving our friends in Bhutan at the Paro Hospital, providing life-improving surgeries to many patients and continuing relationships and experiences that reward everyone involved.

Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for trip updates and pictures. Safe travels, Team Bhutan!

VIDEO: Meet our volunteers

This past fall semester we partnered with Wood Street Communications at Point Park University to be paired with a student looking to share his talents with the non-profit community. Joshua Hutton was matched with us and produced this fantastic video highlighting some of our volunteers and their experiences working with Surgicorps. Thank you to Point Park University for creating an opportunity to connect non-profits with your talented students, thank you Joshua for such a great finished product, and thank you to our volunteers for all that you do to make Surigcorps a success! Enjoy the video below!

Surgicorps: Meet our volunteers

Our volunteers are what make the work we do possible. If you didn't see it last week, check out this video made by student, Josh, at Wood Street Communications of Point Park University

Posted by Surgicorps International on Tuesday, February 5, 2019

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