Samer Attar, MD, during one of his medical mission trips to war-torn Syria.
Courtesy of Samer Attar, MD


Published 6/1/2017

Profiles in Compassion: Orthopaedic Humanitarians

Giving hope to children, the disabled, and the war-torn

Members of the AAOS Communications Cabinet, who select the winner of the annual AAOS Humanitarian Award, have the opportunity to see the wide range of medical outreach activities in which AAOS members engage. Some AAOS members have established personal foundations; others devote their time and efforts to a specific mission; and still others participate in international rescue efforts. Here are three orthopaedic humanitarians whose selflessness and compassion are noteworthy and who have devoted significant time and energy to improving patients' lives around the world.

Love Takes Root
Love Takes Root is an organization driven to help children around the world who are facing dire circumstances by cultivating the welfare of children worldwide and delivering basic aid, education, and the seeds for a sustainable future. It is the brainchild of Rick D. Wilkerson, DO, who established the foundation after a humanitarian mission to Haiti following the massive earthquake in 2010.

Dr. Wilkerson began volunteering with the orthopaedic arm of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) more than 25 years ago. He is a passionate teacher who travels yearly to Iraq to perform surgeries and teach local physicians. According to his colleague, Michael W. Brennan, MD, "Rick established his membership in the Iraqi Medical Society in 2004. Since then, he has conducted more than a dozen week-long, teach-and-train sessions, from Irbil and Kurdish regions through Baghdad, central Iraq, and southern Basrah."

Dr. Wilkerson performed the first total knee arthroplasty in Iraq, which was televised live to hundreds of orthopaedic surgeons throughout the country. He helped establish an orthopaedic surgery residency program with the Iraq Medical Society. He has been recognized as an honorary professor of orthopaedic surgery at Basra University in Iraq for his efforts. He also travels with his family for extended trips to volunteer time and effort in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Kampala and Uganda.

But his heart is with his personal foundation, Love Takes Root. While serving at Hôpital Adventiste d'Haiti after the earthquake, Dr. Wilkerson noticed a quiet, frail boy whom he had seen playing soccer during the day. The boy would come to the roof of the hospital and sleep near him. When Dr. Wilkerson learned that this boy, Junior, had been orphaned in the earthquake, he and his wife decided to adopt him. They also established Love Takes Root (LTR) to build a school and provide housing, well-balanced meals, health care, clean drinking water, and education for children in Haiti.

"The mission of LTR is to 'Cultivate the welfare of children worldwide,'" said Dr. Wilkerson. Since its formation in 2011, LTR has purchased acreage, built cottages for boys, girls, and staff, and opened a primary school with a computer lab and a medical clinic. Its secondary school opened in September 2016. "Our support is a mentoring project for capable Haitians to learn how to become self-sustainable and to learn management skills," he explained. "We aim for this to become a successful operation requiring no financial support within 5 years, when we will start another new project."

Making tangible improvements in life
As the recent medical director at Southern Indiana Rehab Hospital, John C. Shaw, MD, knows the importance of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to rehabilitation. And in Jeonju, South Korea, the John Shaw Rehabilitation Center—a part of the Presbyterian Medical Center (PMC)—treats patients with physical disabilities at no cost, helping them return to an improved family and social life.

Dr. Shaw first traveled to South Korea in 1972 to create the orthopaedic surgery and residency programs at PMC. In 1980, Dr. Shaw and his wife Sharon, an occupational therapist, also created a rehabilitation medicine department and residency training program, including an occupational therapy training program, orthotic-prosthetics, as well as programs for rehabilitation nursing training, speech therapy, and psychological rehabilitation. A dedicated wing was built on the Presbyterian Medical Center, and the Presbyterian Medical Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine was established for inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation. Today, the center treats patients with a range of disabilities, resulting from spinal cord and head injuries, polio, trauma, and other conditions.

The comprehensive multidisciplinary rehabilitation approach was a first in Korea and serves as a model for the rest of the country. Dr. Shaw also formed a home evaluation team to help patients with disability transition to their homes and taught courses to people like taxi drivers on how to bring injured patients safely to the hospital. He developed a rehabilitation-nursing course focused on caring for patients with spinal cord injuries and opened clinics around the country, serving hundreds of children with physical disability.

In spring 2014, the John Shaw Rehabilitation Center—a 250-bed inpatient, full-service hospital to treat disability—opened. "People we have trained have become tremendous leaders in the field of rehabilitation in Korea," Dr. Shaw said.

"The work that was started and sustained in Korea has made tremendous impact on the orthopaedic and rehab care of patients in Korea," said Dr. Shaw. According to Dr. Bong Ok Kim, who was Dr. Shaw's first Rehabilitation Medicine resident at Presbyterian Medical Center and is now president of the Korean Academy of Rehabilitation, Dr. Shaw "has a special heart for people with disabilities and for the people who help the disabled."

A doctor without borders
As a University of Chicago medical student, Samer Attar, MD, rushed to Ground Zero after 9/11 to provide first line care to the injured. As a surgeon, he participated in Operation Walk and started an HVO program in Myanmar. During the Ebola outbreak in 2015, Dr. Attar voluntarily worked in an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia. When hospitals and civilians became targets in Aleppo, Syria, Dr. Attar spearheaded advocacy-related initiatives and medical mission trips to the city, considered the most dangerous in the world.

Daily aerial barrel bombings (drums and cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel pushed out of helicopters), shelling, and sniper attacks targeted healthcare providers, hospitals, clinics, and ambulances. Despite knowing that he could be killed or kidnapped, Dr. Attar continued his efforts to address the shortage of surgeons. After one incident, Dr. Attar "worked nonstop for 16 hours, taking only short naps in between operations … He displayed courage, leadership and professionalism in his work despite the harrowing conditions in which he and other medical professionals in Syria have to operate," said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society.

"He treated fractures, performed numerous amputations, and explored and débrided open wounds. At times, he assisted others on abdominal or chest surgeries," said Michael F. Schafer, MD, Dr. Attar's colleague at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "He ­witnessed the worst of humanity and the best of humanity."

When he returned to the United States, Dr. Attar helped raise awareness and support for the doctors risking their lives in Syria. He wrote op-eds in major newspapers and published articles in medical journals about the innocent Syrian refugees and the aid workers trying to help them. His most recent mission to Syria (July 2016) was documented by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, NBC News, and many other media outlets.

According to Terrance Peabody, MD, Dr. Attar's humanitarian work continues in Chicago: tirelessly providing care to patients with difficult problems or complications—patients whom other surgeons have given up on. "He cares for the most challenging problems, particularly in the poor and immigrant populations," said Dr. Peabody. "He does this regardless of their ability to pay. He is the kind of person we hold out as role models for those in training. His personal sacrifice of time, money, status, and his own health is remarkable."

Greatness deserves recognition
The AAOS Humanitarian Award recognizes living fellows, international members, and emeritus members who have distinguished themselves through outstanding musculoskeletal-related humanitarian activities in the United States or abroad. If you know someone whom you think is deserving of this award, submit his or her name by Friday, June 9, 2017. For more information, visit