When 17-year-old Nehemuel Garcia played soccer, his back hurt. And the sight of him shirtless saddened his mother because she thought she couldn’t do anything to help him.
The family in the Dominican Republic could not afford surgery to remedy their son’s scoliosis. But because of the Pediatric Orthopedic Project Inc., a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis, a volunteer surgeon operated on Garcia in June of last year.
Now 18, he is not only more confident physically, but socially.
Translated from Spanish, his mom Eunice Lopez Garcia said, “Right now it’s like a dream. He’s very happy.”
Since 2012 the Pediatric Orthopedic Project has operated on 25 impoverished children in Santiago to alleviate their scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. And Dominican surgeons, trained by the organization’s volunteers, have operated on 52 more.
This March, 16 volunteers will trek back to the country to perform surgery on more patients.
Dr. Madelyn Stazzone, program director, said it’s been exciting to see the country’s medical techniques improve as more and more children get help.
“That’s unprecedented,” she said. “We’ve been very surprised, honestly.”
But things haven’t always run so smoothly.
Stazzone, a pediatric radiologist, and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon with Signature Medical Group, first decided to volunteer after a fellow surgeon told them of a Dominican doctor looking to start a mission for children with scoliosis.
Many families cannot afford an operation, and especially for girls, the condition can leave them ostracized from the marriage pool.
The Stazzones and about a dozen other volunteers paid for the first trip out of their own pockets and expected it to be a one-time visit to the public hospital that serves an impoverished population of about 500,000. However, after meeting a boy post-operation who later died of undiagnosed pneumonia, Stazzone said she knew more had to be done.
Flies were present in the operating room. The beds were “archaic,” and the rooms were unclean with no air conditioning or fans. Nursing was minimal, so mothers had to take over post-operative care.
“We were very shocked to see the conditions of the hospital,” Stazzone said. “That’s what inspired us, really.”
The group began fundraising at Stazzone’s church in Chesterfield. Signature Medical Group helped raise money for the trips. A drive brought in new and gently used orthopedic equipment, such as cast material and crutches.
Stazzone said she discovered that shipping the equipment would cost an exorbitant amount, so it took her almost a year to get a shipping company — Concert Group Logistics — to donate the shipping.
“I cannot begin to tell you the (amount of) paperwork I had.”
Yet the equipment arrived – and on the same day the group showed up for its second mission trip.
“Within two hours we had set up their first supply room,” Stazzone said.
The group has weathered other issues, too, such as delayed and canceled flights, as well as problems with airport customs.
But the team persevered and last year raised $24,000. It installed 18 ceiling fans in the orthopedic ward, decorated the walls and donated DVD players, movies and an iPod. The group has held lecture series for doctors and this year will hold its first for nurses. In June, it officially became a government-recognized nonprofit.
Dominican surgeons, trained by the U.S. volunteers, are now training doctors at other hospitals. So far, 10 of the 52 children operated on without the U.S. volunteers have been in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital.
And in a predominantly Catholic nation, Stazzone said the public hospital has received some Jehovah’s Witness patients. This presents an issue because the parents don’t want their children to receive blood transfusions.
Garcia was one of those children. But Stazzone said the Dominican hospital was able to use a cell saver machine, which involves recycling blood lost during the surgery to re-infuse it back into the patient.
She said she believes all the obstacles the organization and hospital have had to overcome have been the devil trying to hinder the mission.
“I just think that God has a plan,” she said.
Brian Ho, an anesthesiologist at Mercy St. Louis, will join the trip for the first time this year.
“I’ve always wanted to go on a mission … and use my skills to do some good somewhere else,” he said.
Ho said he’s excited but a bit nervous about working in a public hospital in a developing country. For example, pain medicine is harder to acquire, so the patients have to go cold turkey off post-operation morphine.
Ruby Godier, a nurse at Mercy, went on the trip for the first time last year and said it amazes her that patients don’t complain about their pain after going off morphine.
She said one family even used what little money they had to buy the volunteers a cake.
“The patients and the family, they’re very appreciative,” Godier said.
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