Dr. Nelson, who was honored with the 2014 AAOS Humanitarian Award during the Ceremonial Meeting at the 2014 AAOS Annual Meeting, is committed to providing orthopaedic care to underserved populations and inspiring the next generation of orthopaedists to volunteer their time and expertise. During a 5-year medical mission in the Dominican Republic and more than 30 trips to Haiti, Dr. Nelson has treated thousands of patients in need, and has also established numerous orthopaedic training programs to help improve orthopaedic care in the Caribbean.


Published 4/1/2014
Jennie McKee

Scott C. Nelson, MD, Receives AAOS Humanitarian Award

“While younger than the other [Humanitarian] Award winners, he has already served more than most manage in a lifetime,” wrote John E. Herzenberg, MD, of his friend and colleague, Scott C. Nelson, MD.

A life-changing trip
More than a decade ago, Dr. Nelson first travelled to the Dominican Republic with his wife to provide volunteer orthopaedic care.

“Seeing children enter the operating room with crooked feet and legs and then come out several hours later with dramatic corrections and hope for a new life convinced us that we needed to mobilize ourselves to help even more,” said Dr. Nelson.

After that first visit, Dr. Nelson made many more short-term trips to the Caribbean. In 2004, he and his wife decided to sell their home, downsize their possessions, and move to the Dominican Republic, where he would serve as medical director at the CURE International Children’s Orthopaedic Hospital in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital city.

“For the next five and a half years—from January 2005 to the latter part of 2010—I devoted my career to full-time charity work, offering services otherwise unavailable to those with limited resources in the Dominican Republic and Haiti,” said Dr. Nelson. He and other staff members at the hospital performed surgery on approximately 1,200 patients per year.

He was nominated for the Humanitarian Award by Lewis G. Zirkle, Jr, MD, winner of the 2007 AAOS Humanitarian Award and founder of SIGN Fracture Care International, an organization that works to bring orthopaedic training and instrumentation to developing countries. Dr. Zirkle was greatly impressed by the care Dr. Nelson provided to patients using implants and instruments provided by SIGN.

“He [Dr. Nelson] devised many unique and very effective osteotomies and other surgical procedures to treat children’s deformities,” said Dr. Zirkle. “Surgical reports—including radiographs of specific patients—demonstrated excellent results.”

While working in Santo Domingo, Dr. Nelson regularly travelled to Haiti to provide trauma care and other orthopaedic treatment to Haitian patients, noted Dr. Zirkle.

“He treated both adults and children with severe fractures,” noted Dr. Zirkle. “At his request, we assigned a SIGN set of instruments and implants for him to use during these trips to Haiti. I know his work was exemplary, as shown by the reports of his surgeries on the SIGN database.”

Teaching and inspiring others
While serving in the Dominican Republic, Dr. Nelson created a training program for U.S. orthopaedic surgery residents that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. As part of the program, approximately 20 residents have completed rotations at the CURE International Hospital in the Dominican Republic, gaining valuable experience treating a range of orthopaedic conditions and injuries.

“In addition, we initiated a training program at the CURE International Hospital with residents from two Dominican orthopaedic residency programs,” noted Dr. Nelson “We have also collaborated with the Haitian orthopaedic residency program to facilitate resident rotations at Port-au-Prince Adventist Hospital.”

As part of these training experiences, Dr. Nelson frequently has volunteered his time to lecture on various orthopaedic topics at several of the local teaching hospitals in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He strives to educate, encourage, and inspire a lifestyle of service, both domestically and abroad.

Responding when disaster strikes
After treating patients at the CURE International Hospital for more than 5 years, Dr. Nelson was planning to return to the United States and begin work as an orthopaedic surgery faculty member at his alma mater, Loma Linda University, when an earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. Dr. Nelson quickly put together a surgical team and travelled to Haiti to assist with relief efforts in Port-au-Prince.

After gaining permission to land their chartered plane at the battered airport, Dr. Nelson and his team eventually made their way to Hôpital Adventiste d’Haiti, a government-run hospital lacking many important supplies. He would serve there for 6 months as the relief medical director.

“Dr. Nelson was the first surgeon to arrive, and immediately began organizing and assessing supplies and personnel available to start treating the injured,” noted Dr. Zirkle, who also volunteered at the hospital after the earthquake. That first day, volunteer orthopaedic surgeons worked for hours to treat 14 patients with femur fractures.

“Dr. Nelson had been promised a ‘nice, soft bed’ after all the patients with femur fractures were treated,” remembered Dr. Zirkle. As it turned out, Dr. Zirkle would later find Dr. Nelson sleeping on the floor inside a closet.

“He was lying on the cement floor, sound asleep,” remembered Dr. Zirkle. “He was obviously exhausted.”

Dr. Nelson did not leave the hospital for 6 days and nights during the first week after the earthquake. Hôpital Adventiste d’Haiti still maintains the orthopaedic program Dr. Nelson developed during his time there.

“I continue to support this program, both financially and by making regular trips there to perform surgeries and provide administrative support,” said Dr. Nelson, noting that the hospital is affiliated with Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he currently serves as assistant professor in the department of orthopaedic surgery. Dr. Nelson’s ties with Loma Linda run deep—he graduated from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in orthopaedic surgery and internship in general surgery at Loma Linda University Medical Center. His grandfather, also a surgeon, graduated from Loma Linda University in 1934 and served in the Belgian Congo for more than 20 years of his surgical career.

Dr. Nelson continues to return to Haiti every 3 months to teach orthopaedic residents and to treat children with deformities. For Dr. Nelson, helping those in need is a true calling.

“As Americans and as graduates of great institutions, we have a responsibility to those around us who are less fortunate,” he said.

Jennie McKee is a senior science writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org

Previous Winners of the AAOS Humanitarian Award
The Humanitarian Award honors members of the Academy who have distinguished themselves through outstanding musculoskeletal-related humanitarian activities in the United States or abroad. This award also recognizes orthopaedic surgeons who help to improve the human condition by alleviating suffering and supporting and contributing to the basic human dignity of those in need. Previous winners of the award include the following:

2013 David S. Hungerford, MD

2012 Shafique P. Pirani, MD

2011 Taylor K. Smith, MD

2010 Larry D. Hull, MD

2009 David P. Roye Jr, MD

2008 Kaye E. Wilkins, DVM, MD

2007 Lewis G. Zirkle Jr, MD

2006 R. Richard Coughlin, MD

2005 Lawrence D. Dorr, MD

2004 Oheneba Boachie-Adjei, MD

2003 John R. Tongue, MD

2002 David Apple, MD
Charles C. P. McConnachie, MD

2001 Ernest M. Burgess, MD
Charles Hamlin, MD

2000 Charles H. Epps Jr, MD
C. Scott Harrison, MD

2014 Annual Meeting Video Presentations
Scott C. Nelson, MD, Humanitarian Award