AAOS Bulletin - December, 2005

Retired orthopaedists: A wasted resource?

Don’t push your skills off the flight deck

As battalion surgeons during the Vietnam War, those of us in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps valued helicopters greatly. They supported us in tactical operations and evacuated the wounded when necessary.

In 1975—when North Vietnam overran the South Vietnamese defenses—newscasts showed helicopters like ours being bulldozed off a U.S. carrier flight deck into the sea. Those scenes have never left my mind as being the ultimate in waste. ‘Couldn’t those birds have been put to a useful purpose somewhere?’ I wondered.

David S. Whitney, MD

Western-trained orthopaedic surgeons—with fine minds, excellent training and years of experience—are a valuable human resource. When I see these priceless skills and all that knowledge placed on the shelf at retirement, I experience the same gut feeling of waste as I did watching those copters sink.

Leaving the world a better place

We all entered medical school with some degree of motivation to leave the world a better place for our having labored here. During our years of practice, most workdays allowed us to work toward that goal. Retirement need not bring that quest to an end. We can share our knowledge and skills with health care providers around the world who haven’t had the benefit of our education and training. This phase of our professional life can be truly rewarding for us and for those to whom we pass the torch. The gift can then be multiplied exponentially to treat patients with a debilitating nonunion, an energy draining chronic osteomyelitis, or an acute open comminuted fracture of the lower extremity, for example. These interventions change lives for patients, their families and their communities.

Whether you are considering retirement or are actively retired, still eager to enter the operating room or not, focused on general orthopaedics or subspecialty care—there are many opportunities and venues for you to pass on your talents and skills to others. This is not a totally selfless proposition. Having worked in developing countries with several organizations since 1969, I can assure you that some of my greatest professional joys and rewards have come from those experiences. Lasting and valued friendships invariably form when we work outside our usual environment.

Getting your feet wet

First-time volunteers should work with a group or organization that can provide a safe and comfortable framework to help you get started. There are many such groups. If you prefer a clinic or an operating room situation focused on treatment, an organization such as Mercy Ships might be the right fit. This Christian nonprofit group operates orthopaedic outreach programs supported through a hospital ship that serves needy coastal communities in Central and South America and the West Coast of Africa.

For those interested in state-of-the-art trauma care, there is the Surgical Implant Generation Network (SIGN)—a nonprofit program started by Dr. Lewis Zirkle, an orthopaedic surgeon in Richland, Wash. SIGN is currently training orthopaedic surgeons in more than 100 sites worldwide in the use of locked intramedullary nailing of long bone fractures. SIGN also produces the nail being used. (See related article in April 2004 Bulletin.)

Our well-known Orthopaedics Overseas—a division of Health Volunteers Overseas—offers teaching programs in sites worldwide. The typical volunteer experience lasts about one month, but some sites allow visits as short as two weeks. Many sites need operating surgeons. However, because the main goal is teaching, locations such as Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda—with which I am currently involved—provide opportunities to work with medical students, orthopaedic residents and orthopaedic officers (physician’s assistants). Instruction takes place in the classroom, wards, clinics, or operating room. Teaching opportunities are everywhere.

Are you worried about:

• AIDS? Sure, the incidence of HIV/AIDS is higher in developing countries, but we double-glove and use universal precautions. I have yet to hear of a volunteer orthopaedist becoming infected. Driving in rush-hour traffic is much more dangerous.

• Lecture material? Excellent current and topical orthopaedic PowerPoint talks can now be downloaded from the AAOS Web site and elsewhere—all ready to go. Many volunteer programs have their own digital projector and some volunteers take along a small portable one.

• Money? What are you saving it for? The expenditures you make here will give both you and the recipients much more joy than you could possibly buy on a cruise or golf vacation. Sure, our children need money, but too much might impede self-determination and development.

• Your spouse? In most cases you can bring him or her along. My wife is a retired teacher with little medical knowledge or training, but she has never failed to find a rewarding project to work on—in both English and non-English speaking locations. Tack a vacation onto your volunteer month. You may never again be as close to African game parks or temple ruins.

Just do it!

The helicopters need not be plowed off the carrier deck… Here’s where to start:

Orthopaedics Overseas


Mercy Ships

All of these organizations have booths at the upcoming 2006 AAOS Annual Meeting in Chicago. Be sure to stop by to hear more about the programs and the exciting opportunities that await you.

David S. Whitney, MD, is a semi-retired orthopaedic surgeon living in Port Townsend, Wash. Dr. Whitney has been volunteering his time and orthopaedic knowledge for more than 20 years, working with organizations such as SIGN and Mercy Ship. Whitney’s Orthopaedics Overseas stints have included St. Lucia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda. He serves on the board of SIGN and has worked with Mercy Ships in Honduras. He can be reached at dswhitney@olympus.net.

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