Brian S. Parsley, MD, FAAOS, has dedicated more than two decades of his career providing orthopaedic services to underprivileged communities, most notably in Guatemala. Because of his extensive work, devotion, and selflessness, he was selected as a runner-up for the Academy’s 2020 Humanitarian Award.
Eric F. Berkman, MD, FAAOS, who nominated Dr. Parsley for the award, described him as “the most humanitarian guy that I know.”
“I’ve been in practice for 24 years, and I do not know another person who does what he does.”
Dr. Parsley is currently an associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. He also serves as the director of the Adult Reconstruction Fellowship and has a full-time active practice in joint reconstruction surgery.
According to Dr. Parsley, humanitarian work was always intended to be part of his life. He began volunteering at a hospital during high school, which is where his desire to go into the field of medicine was born.
“Once I got into medicine, I knew that giving back in medicine was also a part of that process as well,” he told AAOS Now. “I had great mentors and great parents to lead that example.”
Dr. Parsley has been volunteering and performing medical mission trips for 24 years. On average, he travels about three times per year—but that varies by circumstance. The year Haiti suffered its devastating earthquake, Dr. Parsley went there four times to help.
Faith in Practice and mission work in Guatemala
Dr. Parsley’s first trip to Guatemala came about through a friend he had met in college at Texas A&M University. Dentist Wayne Newell was involved with Faith in Practice, a medical mission organization that was then in its early stages. Dr. Parsley was asked to join the group on a trip to Guatemala.
“On that first trip, I was on a team of about 18 people, and we went to a hospital in Antigua, Guatemala. It was an old orphanage that was run by the Franciscan monks, but they actually had taken over an old national hospital site that had been destroyed by multiple earthquakes.”
When word spread that an orthopaedic surgeon was arriving, many people wanted to take advantage of the otherwise unavailable opportunity.
“On the day I arrived at the hospital, there were people in line at 6:45 a.m.,” Dr. Parsley recalled. “They surrounded an entire city block, and I didn’t know they were all there to see me, but they were. I saw about 190 patients that day. We operated for four days, and my surgery schedule was booked at six or seven surgeries a day [for all four days] by 2 p.m.”
Dr. Parsley saw his last patient at 9 p.m.
The long, intensive hours made Dr. Parsley question whether that type of humanitarian work was something he could handle—a hesitancy that did not last long.
“We did not see the light of day for four days—my whole team,” he said. “I was physically and mentally exhausted. When I was finished, I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be back.’ That lasted about 24 hours.”
Since that first trip, Faith in Practice has grown to become the third largest healthcare provider in Guatemala, according to Dr. Parsley.
“As a volunteer organization, we’ve renovated two hospitals. We have 48 medical mission teams that visit each year. We have 1,400 medical volunteers in the United States. We have 1,000 Guatemalan volunteers all around the country who evaluate or see patients.”
Dr. Parsley played a significant role in developing Faith in Practice’s successful orthopaedic program. The Rev. Linda L. McCarty, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, described their orthopaedic program as one of their “most robust and growing programs providing care.” She added, “Dr. Parsley has played a key role in this program since its inception nearly 25 years ago.”
Humanitarian work: Say yes and get involved
Dr. Parsley’s advice to someone who wants to get involved in humanitarian work is to say “yes,” even when saying “no” would be the easier answer. “It’s always easy to find an excuse. But when you say ‘yes,’ amazing things happen. Your life will change. It will change in a way that you have no idea until you say ‘yes,’ because you will find out something about yourself that you never knew existed,” he said.
For potential first-time volunteers, Dr. Parsley recommends checking with a local orthopaedic specialty society or nearby academic medical school with an interest in global health. Local churches also may host opportunities, as well as national orthopaedic organizations, such as AAOS, the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons, or Orthopedic Overseas.
“In addition, there are many well-organized programs such as Faith in Practice that are available that may fit your needs. The internet is an excellent resource to begin your search,” he said. “Ask a lot of questions, and try to talk with two or three volunteers who have participated in the program to get a better feel.”
As far as what you will get back from mission work, Dr. Parsley said, “It gets you back to the basics of health care and why we, most of us, went into health care in the first place. The compassion, skill sets, [and] values that you have and that we receive … my blessings are so much more than any dollar I can ever be paid.”
Finally, Dr. Parsley said that humanitarian work provides an opportunity for growth through new challenges. “The challenges that you face will bring you back to the knowledge that you developed when you first went through all your training. You have to think outside of the box. You can’t just reach back there and get the newest piece of equipment. You reach back there, and you might get the only curette that they have or the only osteotome that they own. But if you understand the basic principles of orthopaedics, you can correct, repair, or improve a problem that you’re faced with in the third-world country. And that’s one of the greatest [take-aways] I’ve had for myself. I have learned so many things about orthopaedics in Guatemala, Haiti, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Mexico that I brought back to my practice in Houston, when I thought that I knew it all in Houston,” he said.
Volunteering for humanitarian work is an invaluable opportunity that gives back in priceless ways. Many resources are available to those new to mission work to help them locate opportunities best suited for their needs and goals. Reach out to local and national organizations, or ask members of your community who have volunteered in the past for more insights.
Kaitlyn D’Onofrio is the associate editor for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.