June 1999 Bulletin

Orthopaedists bring care to Guatemala

Medical physicians treat patients, help local doctors learn new surgical techniques

Damen Sanches, surgical technician, left, assists Mark Kircher, MD, right, in Antiqua, Guatemala.

Watching a 26-year old Guatemalan woman-who had no expectation that her cleft lip would ever be fixed-look into a mirror after a successful corrective operation is just one of many rewards that Charlotte B. Alexander, MD, yields from her yearly visits to Guatemala. The orthopaedic surgeon from Houston has experienced hundreds of such moments in her travels with "Faith in Practice," a community of volunteers who work to improve conditions for the poor in Central America.

Since 1992, Dr. Alexander and her husband, Richard Alexander, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon, have spent at least one week a year volunteering their services in this impoverished country. The Alexanders had been interested in this type of outreach work for some time, but had been unable to find an opportunity that didn't require an extensive time commitment.

The right opportunity presented itself when they met Todd Collier, a Princeton Seminary graduate, who was interning at a Houston church. Collier had traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, in 1992 to learn Spanish. While there, he visited the Hermano Pedro Hospital for the poor and met Friar Guillermo Bonilla, who had recently reopened the hospital and was providing care for orphans, children suffering from malnutrition, children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, and the elderly poor who had no families to care for them.

Upon returning to Houston, Collier shared his concerns with others and eventually founded Faith in Practice, recruiting the Alexanders as members of the first team to travel to Guatemala.

"We were operating with a gooseneck lamp, there was no suction-we had to improvise a lot," Dr. Alexander says of their first trip. "It was quite an experience. There were 12 of us and we managed to perform about 15 surgeries. Now we have it set up so that we're fairly well equipped. On our most recent trip in late April, our team ended up doing about 60 surgeries."

The medical teams travel to Antigua, Guatemala, bringing with them all the supplies they expect to use, and as much medication as possible. Teams are formed in an effort to focus on a particular type of surgery each week. Contacts in Guatemala are alerted in advance so they can gather patients whose needs can be met by a particular team. Doctors are often met with busloads of people hoping to receive medical help.

This year, seven medical teams are scheduled to travel to Guatemala from late March through mid-June. Each team includes at least three surgeons, sometimes more, as well as operating nurses, recovery room nurses, anesthesiologists, and dentists. The teams often include occupational therapists, physical therapists, dental hygienists, nutritionists, and translators, as well. The physicians tend to be general surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, ENTs, plastic surgeons, and ob-gyns. In addition to Dr. Alexander, orthopaedic surgeons who have participated in these trips include Mark Kircher, MD; Robert Powers, MD; Brian Parsley, MD; Bradford Urquhart, MD; and Clinton Davis, MD.

Dr. Alexander's most recent trip, in late April, included the regular visit to Antigua as well as a side trip to Santa Cruz del Quiche.

Local orthopaedic surgeons and general surgeons in Antigua routinely work with the teams, observing new surgical techniques.

Dr. Alexander's hospital, Memorial Hospital Southwest, has supported Faith in Practice in the past, but it is now taking the lead in forming a mission of its own.

"This year, they decided that their definition of 'community' extends beyond Houston to other parts of the world," Dr. Alexander said.

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