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Dr. Strassberg performs some underwater repairs to his sailboat—removing the propeller to install a new one—while in the Galapagos Islands.
Courtesy of William Strassberg, MD

AAOS Now

Published 9/1/2015
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Jennie McKee

Harnessing the Wind

William Strassberg, MD, sailed across the Pacific, helping people along the way

“Sailing is exhilarating and calming at the same time,” said orthopaedic surgeon William Strassberg, MD. “I have always enjoyed the magic of harnessing the wind and being silently powered.

“In training and my early years of practice,” he added, “sailing was a great getaway, because of the peace and quiet. But it also let me explore my adventurous side.”

Originally from New York City, Dr. Strassberg has long resided on the coast of Maine, where he has ample opportunities to pilot his custom-designed blue water sailboat. Though he has taken numerous trips, two stand out in his mind: a 6-month journey to the Caribbean and an 18-month sail across the South Pacific Ocean. During both of these travels, Dr. Strassberg and his family explored exotic lands and immersed themselves in local cultures. Dr. Strassberg also shared his medical expertise and other resources with people around the world.

A passion for the sea
Dr. Strassberg fell in love with sailing as a youngster at sailing camp, which he attended every summer. During his orthopaedic residency at Boston University Medical Center, Dr. Strassberg worked as an instructor at Boston Sailing Center.

“In 1988, I came up to Maine as a solo practitioner to assume a general orthopaedic practice from Robert Keller, MD, with whom I am good friends,” he said. “I was on call every day and night for the first 10 years.”

In need of some relaxation, Dr. Strassberg and his family took a 6-month sabbatical to the Caribbean.

“A wonderful orthopaedic surgeon, Harold J. Forney, MD, who was retiring from practice in San Diego, came to care for my orthopaedic practice so I could go away,” he explained.

Dr. Strassberg and his family—his wife Johanna, son Zachary, and stepson Gram—had many memorable moments during that trip.

“We homeschooled Zak, who was 7 years old at the time,” he said. “We used the experiences around us as our classroom, including learning to scuba dive. A good part of the science curriculum was the physiology and physics of scuba, pressure volume relationships, and other measurements and units related to scuba. The history curriculum was all around us.

“The two of us would always get up early in the morning,” he continued. “In the French West Indies, we would take the dinghy to shore, have breakfast, and my son would do his schoolwork every morning for a couple of hours. It was wonderful.

“Gram took a gap year between high school and college to join us,” added Dr. Strassberg. “He just had a blast.”

When they returned to Maine, Dr. Strassberg continued to work part time with Dr. Forney for many years.

“Our trip to the Caribbean was so wonderful that we were inspired to plan another trip,” said Dr. Strassberg.

An epic journey
Dr. Strassberg had to do a great deal of planning and preparation before beginning the 18-month voyage across the South Pacific Ocean.

“You have to have a sound boat, because at times you will have to make repairs in areas with few facilities. You end up with an immense amount of tools and spare parts aboard,” he said.

The voyage began in 2009, with a sail from Newport, R.I., to Cartagena, Colombia.

“That was what we call a ‘boy’s sail,’ meaning that you look at it as a delivery of the boat from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B,’ so you run the boat a little harder and put up with more discomfort than you might otherwise. Gram and three of our friends did that 10-day leg with me. Then I flew back and worked while Gram lived on the boat. After that, Johanna and I came down and we started from Cartagena.”

They then sailed to Panama, where they spent months in Panama’s San Blas Islands.

“We were fascinated by the culture of the indigenous people, the Kuna Indians,” he said. “We also enjoyed the beautiful beaches, which were extraordinary.”

After sailing through the Panama Canal, they stopped in Ecuador for 7 weeks.

“Our kids and grandchild came down and we explored Ecuador,” he said. “We had some fantastic experiences touring the country, seeing the jungle, beautiful old cities, and an old plantation.”

For the first 6 months of the journey, noted Dr. Strassberg, he travelled back to the United States three or four times to care for patients. Then, he took a year-long sabbatical so that he and his family could sail the Pacific. They departed from Ecuador and sailed to the Galapagos Islands, where they spent 7 weeks.

Dr. Strassberg performs some underwater repairs to his sailboat—removing the propeller to install a new one—while in the Galapagos Islands.
Courtesy of William Strassberg, MD
Some of the wildlife Dr. Strassberg and his family encountered during their 18-month journey across the South Pacific Ocean included these distinctively colored birds, known as blue-footed boobies.
Courtesy of William Strassberg, MD

“The reason we spent so much time in the Galapagos was to make a propeller change,” said Dr. Strassberg. “Before every long passage, sailors examine their boats from stem to stern and top to bottom, including underwater components. We discovered a loose blade on our feathering propeller and had to figure out how to remove the old unit and install a new one on the small island of Isabella. The propeller manufacturer suggested hauling the boat into dry dock, but that was not possible. We finally fabricated equipment that enabled us to remove the old propeller and install the new one underwater, in scuba gear. This was probably our most challenging event and a satisfying accomplishment.”

In the Galapagos, as well as on Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, some of the smaller atolls, and throughout French Polynesia, “it was quite extraordinary to meet people who didn’t have much, as far as material possessions,” said Dr. Strassberg.

“I always find it uplifting to see people who really live off the land and are so incredibly giving and so very happy,” he said. “They are just wonderful people to meet. They are always giving you things, making you meals, and presenting you with tokens from their village or country. It’s important to give back in return—whether material things or your skills or expertise.

“With my medical and surgical expertise, I could interact with people from all over the world and several different medical systems,” he said. “I ended up doing a lot of consults and some work along the way, which was a really wonderful way to meet people and integrate into the various cultures,” he said.

Because Dr. Strassberg made the effort to interact with and help local people throughout the trip, he and his family were treated to personal tours from residents eager to show them beautiful views and other features of their homelands.

Caring for the Commodore
While in Tonga, on the island of Niue, Dr. Strassberg met the “Commodore” of the Niue Yacht Club.

“He wasn’t a sailor—just a wonderful fellow who was semi-retired and loved to remain active and meet people,” he said.

When word spread that a physician was on the island, Dr. Strassberg was asked to visit the Commodore at his home.

“He had a pretty severe ascending lymphangitis,” said Dr. Strass­berg. “He was febrile and didn’t look good. He had gone to the hospital the day before, but they had sent him home. He was reticent to go back. I convinced the Commodore to call the hospital and ask for the physician on call.”

Then, Dr. Strassberg got on the phone and politely asked questions about a possible diagnosis.

“I was careful to be respectful, so that my interactions would add value and be appreciated and the physician would agree to see the patient,” he said.

Because the hospital didn’t have the proper medications, Dr. Strassberg provided antibiotics from his store of medical supplies.

“The Commodore was shipped off the island for definitive care 2 days later,” he said. “He was going into sepsis, so we really did make a big difference there.

Other ways of giving back
Dr. Strassberg’s efforts to help and interact with local people went beyond providing medical treatment, such as when he donated money so that a young boy he met on Niuatoputapu, an island nation in the Kingdom of Tonga, could be transported off the island to receive treatment for chronic recurrent osteomyelitis.

In Tonga, where residents were rebuilding from the 2009 tsunami, Dr. Strassberg and his family pitched in to speed home construction.

“The Australian Red Cross had sent over modular huts—one- or two-room enclosures,” remembered Dr. Strassberg. “As we walked through the villages, we saw that people were pounding nails and fastening window frames to the structures without the bolts and hardware that was supplied. We asked why, and realized that they did not have drills and bits to make the holes for the bolts. So, we spent 2 days with our portable drills and battery packs, going from hut to hut to pre-drill holes. It was another lesson learned about understanding peoples’ lives and cultures. Our help was most fruitful when accompanied by empathy for their circumstances.

“The experience—which ended with us reaching New Zealand and then sailing home—was spectacular,” said Dr. Strassberg. “All throughout, I kept thinking that orthopaedists, as a group, are so blessed. We are so lucky to do what we do. It is really special for me to be able to give back, even in little doses.”

The trip yielded unexpected dividends, noted Dr. Strassberg, who gained numerous insights into healthcare systems in different countries, such as New Zealand, where he helped a patient through foot surgeries secondary to a deep abscess from coral infection.

“New Zealand’s healthcare system has both public and private portions,” he explained. “Being able to work inside these systems was educational and serves as a foil for me as I think about where the U.S. healthcare system is headed.

“The biggest dividend, however, was that we gained a daughter-in-law, as Gram met and later married a beautiful Kiwi lass,” said Dr. Strassberg.

Dr. Strassberg knows that finding time to take a long sabbatical such as he did can be difficult for orthopaedic surgeons.

“It’s a big deal to be willing to take a year off,” he said. “There are 100 reasons to say ‘no,’ or ‘I can’t,’ but one great reason to say ‘yes.’ The rewards of traveling and exploring are amazing.”

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