Orthopaedists help dispel the specialty’s ‘low-touch’ image
Stephen M. McCollam, MD, is one of many orthopaedists helping to change the public’s perception of orthopaedic surgeons as “low-touch” physicians whose empathy for patients doesn’t match their surgical acumen (see cover story on the 2008 AAOS orthopaedic image study).
As AAOS Now went to press, Dr. McCollam was preparing for his annual trip to Haiti, where he and other orthopaedists provide care to impoverished patients.
Dr. McCollam’s selflessness and compassion are shared by the other orthopaedists profiled here, all of whom have devoted a significant amount of time and energy to improving patients’ lives around the world as well as back home.
Making a difference in Haiti
Dr. McCollam started going on medical missions to Haiti after joining the Peachtree Orthopaedic Clinic in Atlanta. Nearly 20 orthopaedists from the practice have volunteered since Peachtree’s founder, F. James Funk, MD, (deceased), began traveling there in 1952.
After Joseph H. “Skoot” Dimon III, MD, and former AAOS President Robert E. Wells, MD, joined Dr. Funk at the practice in the mid-1960s, the three orthopaedists embarked on week-long medical missions to Haiti every 4 months.
“The conditions I saw and treated back then haven’t changed much over the years,” says Dr. Wells. “We still see neglected trauma, unusual infections, and unusual congenital abnormalities and deformities.”
Patients walk for miles or travel on donkeys, horses, or stretchers carried by family members to reach Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, an integrated rural health system that serves nearly 300,000 people. The orthopaedic group has a long-standing relationship with the hospital.
“The hospital has full surgical facilities,” says Dr. Wells. “For example, good anesthesia and X-rays are available, and it has a blood bank and laboratory facilities.”
Robert H. Haralson III, MD, MBA, the medical director of the AAOS, participated in two medical missions to Haiti with the orthopaedists from the clinic.
“We not only cared for the patients, but we also taught the general surgeons how to provide some orthopaedic care,” said Dr. Haralson. “That was the most rewarding part of the experience.”
Dr. McCollam feels it’s important to help continue the group’s decades-long tradition.
“You step into a world where people are injured and they need you,” he explains. “You have all the time in the world to try and make them better, and all the other encumbrances—such as the business aspects of running a practice in the United States—disappear.”
He’s also motivated by the spirit of the Haitian patients.
“As poor as they are, they are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met,” he says. “I remember a 14-year-old girl whose joints were infected. It wasn’t clear if she would ever walk again, but every time I walked by, she would smile and say, ‘Bonjour, Doctor.’”
He was also moved by a little boy who witnessed his parents being killed by attackers with machetes. One of the boy’s hands was cut off during the attack. “The hospital staff sort of adopted him,” he says. “This little boy had nothing, but he was smiling. I can still remember his face.”
Drs. McCollam and Wells agree that volunteering reminds them of all the reasons they wanted to go to medical school, and it makes them better physicians.
“Helping patients in Haiti who might not otherwise receive care is unimaginably rewarding,” says Dr. Wells. “You come away feeling cleansed and whole.”
Humanitarian efforts in Honduras
In 1994, Edwards P. Schwentker, MD, received a phone call from Bradley Hoch, MD, a pediatrician colleague.
“He told me that he did mission work in Honduras,” recalls Dr. Schwentker, “and that he saw a lot of children with clubfeet. He asked me how to care for them. I told Dr. Hoch to take me along on his next trip.”
The following year, Dr. Schwentker arrived in Honduras and began treating patients at Leonardo Martinez Hospital in San Pedro Sula.
“My team consisted of an operating room nurse, a general orthopaedic surgeon and his son, and my daughter—then a medical student,” says Dr. Schwentker. “We evaluated scores of children, and with the help of Honduran colleagues, we operated on about 20 patients.”
Since then, Dr. Schwentker has led 26 medical missions to Honduras for 2 weeks at a time.
“I’ve been fortunate to recruit several other members of the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA) to help us,” says Dr. Schwentker. “During each mission, we’ve evaluated more than 100 children and operated on between 30 and 50 patients.”
Since that first mission, Dr. Schwentker’s wife, Bunny, has served as project coordinator, equipment manager, and communicator.
“I could not function without her,” says Dr. Schwentker.
Because year-round follow-up care is vital for clubfoot patients, Dr. Schwentker worked with CURE International, a nonprofit organization to build a hospital that opened in December 2008. The hospital, which has two operating rooms that are as well-equipped as many U.S hospitals, is committed to providing care for children from the entire country.
“Now we have a c-arm image intensifier, and each operating room has more space than all three operating rooms we had been using in the Leonardo Martinez Hospital. The outpatient area has three clinic examining rooms, a separate cast room, room for physical therapy services, and much more,” says Dr. Schwentker.
The hospital also serves as a training center for local physicians.
“From the beginning, our projects have involved local orthopaedic surgeons,” says Dr. Schwentker. “We continue to welcome our Honduran orthopaedic colleagues in our new facility, but our educational commitment extends to other healthcare professionals as well.
Dr. Schwentker plans to recruit other POSNA members to help develop specialty programs for treating complex limb deformity, limb lengthening, spinal deformity, and hand conditions. Medical students and residents are also welcome.
From Honduras to Phoenix
Herbert J. “Tim” Louis, MD, has also participated in medical missions to Honduras and Zimbabwe, treating patients with conditions such as clubfoot, dislocated hips, scoliosis, and infections. But he has concentrated most of his humanitarian efforts on patients in desperate need of orthopaedic care in his own Arizona community.
For decades, Dr. Louis provided his services at orthopaedic clinics on remote Navajo, Hopi, San Carlos Apache, and Apache reservations near Phoenix as part of the state-run program known as Children’s Rehabilitative Services. He also performed surgeries on uninsured and impoverished patients at the county hospital, now known as the Maricopa Medical Center, for 35 years.
“Children’s Rehabilitative Services has been and is an important contributor to pediatric health, both orthopaedic and general, in Arizona,” says Dr. Louis. “It was most gratifying to provide services and education for our residents.
He says that congenital hip problems were the most common conditions he treated as part of the program, but he also saw a wide spectrum of congenital and acquired orthopaedic problems.
Dr. Louis, who is now retired, trained many of the physicians who would become leaders of the Arizona orthopaedic community after founding the Phoenix Orthopaedic Residency Training Program. He also served as chair of orthopaedics at the Maricopa Medical Center and the Arizona (then Crippled) Children’s Hospital.
“My role as chair and director of the orthopaedic training program was the most gratifying part of my life’s work,” says Dr. Louis, adding that he didn’t consider it difficult to find the time and energy to perform those jobs.
“I have to say, though, that when I retired, three people took over as my successors,” he laughs.
When he saw the need for a children’s hospital in Phoenix, Dr. Louis helped make it a reality.
“The idea for Phoenix Children’s Hospital originated in the late 1970s,” says Dr. Louis. “Although it wasn’t financially feasible then, in 1983, the Phoenix Children’s Hospital took over two floors of Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center.”
Dr. Louis and his family have donated several million dollars to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, which is now a free-standing facility; their family’s financial support has also made it possible to renovate the neonatal intensive care unit, establish an endowment to provide better access to care, and enhance the hospital’s research and educational opportunities.
For Dr. Louis, giving back to his community throughout his long and distinguished career has been second nature.
“The necessity of contributing to philanthropic causes was a part of my upbringing,” says Dr. Louis. “I have tried to instill that feeling of obligation to my children and grandchildren.”
Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org