Mark S. Brazinski, MD, took his family to an HVO assignment in Bhutan.


Published 10/1/2007
Peter Pollack

Pack your bags…we’re going to Bhutan!

Orthopaedists make HVO a family experience

An assignment with Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) can be a fantastic experience for any physician, but spending several weeks or a month apart from one’s family in a remote region of the globe can also be a daunting prospect.

The alternative is bringing your spouse and children along. According to those who have done so, the result is an opportunity for family members to grow together, immersing themselves in another culture, and sharing an experience likely to give them a new perspective on the world.

The family “mortar”
“You have to do something to keep your family together—especially in the West,” says R. Michael Gross, MD, who has taken family members on HVO trips to Uganda, Bhutan and Nicaragua. “The older they get, the more they all head in different directions. Travel is the mortar that my wife and I used to hold our family together, whether we were traveling for pleasure or including the children on some of the adventures so that they know what their parents do for a living.”

“Going to South Africa was literally one of the highlights of my career,” says John K. Drake, MD, who had volunteered overseas for years alone before bringing his wife and three teenagers on a 1999 assignment to Bedford Orthopaedic Hospital in the Transkei. (See article in the August 2007 AAOS Now for more on orthopaedics in the Transkei.)

“We spent six weeks there—a month working at the hospital and a week on each end touring the country,” recalls Dr. Drake. “My wife and two daughters worked in the physical therapy department. Bedford has a large spinal injuries unit, and they helped the physical therapists mobilize the patients, do stretching, etc. My son and one of his college friends joined us later and worked there also. It was a great experience for me.

“We finished surgery about 4 p.m. each day, and then I’d be with my family,” he says. We had a chance to bond without a lot of outside influence. We had conversations and dinner together. I enjoyed it a lot.”

More than just a trip overseas
“I went to Afghanistan in 1990, and returned in 1993,” says Rick Wilkerson, MD. “My wife didn’t understand why I enjoyed it so much, until she and my five kids at the time went to Bhutan in 1995. They all just had a wonderful experience during our month there.”

Dr. Wilkerson gained more from HVO than simply a memorable trip for himself and his family members—he literally increased the size of his family.

“In 1996, I was investigating starting a program in Cambodia,” he explains. “When I went there, I adopted a little baby boy and brought him back with me. That really got the family interested. We just returned from an HVO program in Uganda.

“It was a wonderful experience. My wife [a nurse practitioner] did pediatrics, and the kids ended up going with her. The hospital had once received a grant to start a pediatric play room but when that funding dried up 5 years ago, the hospital turned it into a storage room. My kids cleaned it out, painted it, bought some mats and toys, and reopened the play room,” he says.

“Every morning, my 11-year-old, 10-year-old, and 7-year-old went down to the pediatric ward and taught the alphabet and numbers to the children. They played games, drew pictures, and just had a great time. They made wonderful friends, and learned a lot about a different area of the world and kids less fortunate than themselves,” says Dr. Wilkerson. Each child had brought one toy from home, plus a deck of Uno cards; by the end of the first week, they had given all the toys away.

“Despite that, and despite having no TV or radio, never once in the entire three weeks did the children complain about being bored,” says Dr. Wilkerson. “They were busy playing with the neighbors and just having fun.”

Cultural connections
Mark S. Brazinski, MD,
took his family on assignment to Bhutan in June 2006. With four small children under age 10, he and his wife had planned a safe trip while school was out of session. The children wasted little time fitting in.

“They really got immersed in the culture right away,” says Dr. Brazinski. “Kids adapt so quickly. Within an hour of our arrival, they were part of a neighborhood soccer game.”

Because Dr. Brazinski spent much of his time at the hospital, his family found ways to fit into the culture of the world’s last independent Buddhist kingdom.

“My wife is a physical therapist and arranged to help in the hospital’s physical therapy department. We put our older kids in school in Bhutan, which was quite a shock for them, I think.”

“One of the nice things about HVO,” explains Dr. Gross, “is that, in almost all the programs, you always have time available to learn more about the people and visit interesting places. One weekend in Uganda, we stayed in Entebbe, which is about 45 minutes away from the HVO hospital. We visited the chimpanzee refuge center and went to a cultural dance center, to see an international dance troupe that travels all around the world introducing people to Ugandan dances.

“The local countries are very inviting and very inclusive,” he continues. “That’s another nice thing about traveling with HVO. Although you’re a tourist of sorts and certainly a foreigner, they do include you in their activities. We’ve been invited out to eat; we’ve been invited out socially. We traveled with a couple in Bhutan for several days. We spent Christmas Day in Buddhist monasteries.”

“I think that my children—as well as my wife and I—feel more like world citizens, in a sense,” agrees Dr. Brazinski. “You realize that many of the limitations put on people are man-made, and we’re all on this planet as, for lack of a better word, children under God.”

Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at