Have stethescope, will travel

June 1-7, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 21
Have stethescope, will travel
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Doctors, nurses from hospitals throughout region serve abroad

Since early childhood, Dr. Alfred Falcone felt called to an adventurous life.
A few years ago, the retired plastic surgeon compiled his memoirs of volunteering along the Amazon River in Brazil in a book, Amazon Surgeon. In the forward, he recalls a childhood memory from grammar school in which the teacher asks, “Why would anyone climb the Matterhorn?” and “Why would anyone sail from South America to Australia in a raft to prove the migration of people in ancient times?” She answers her own question with the reply, “For love of adventure.”

Falcone reveals that, at that age, he wondered whether or not he would have the opportunity to explore his “love of adventure.” The rest of the book details his various trips to the Amazon River, where he did indeed find such adventures. In the first chapter he recounts how he discovered a random flyer calling for surgeons to help people in that region who needed reconstructive surgery for facial clefts. According to the book, Falcone was inspired from the moment he saw that flyer. “Perhaps the Lord had a hand in this and this was His way of telling me it was time for my adventure,” Falcone wrote at the close of the introductory chapter.

When he contacted the sponsor organization, Esperanca, he told the representative he was determined to participate. “I pushed my way in,” Falcone said. In Amazon Surgeon, he detailed that he asked to be put on the top of the waiting list of doctors going to Brazil. It was not, however, his first trip to the South American country. Falcone ventured to Brazil in 1963 for a plastic surgeons’ conference and then made subsequent trips to adopt two sons from Brazil, Mani and Paul. In all, Falcone and his wife, Francoise, have eight children, four are biological and four are adopted.

Falcone’s first trip to the Amazon was in 1978 and he made five trips after that. A medical episode in 1984 left Falcone confined to a wheelchair and that kept him away from volunteering abroad for roughly nine years as he was forced to redevelop his practice. However, he returned in 1993. “The lure of the Amazon and the challenges waiting for me there tempted me,” he wrote in Amazon Surgeon regarding his final trip to Santarem, Brazil.

During that fifth visit, the doctor executed one of his most challenging procedures. A girl was brought in with what were described to Falcone as “lacerations.” When the doctor finally examined the girl, he discovered a graver situation. While boating with her father, the girl, named Dulcina dos Santos, was thrust backward into the rotating drive shaft of the craft when it lurched. Her long hair was caught in the apparatus, which continued to turn, peeling off the girl’s scalp and one of her eyebrows. Three weeks had passed since the incident and the scalp was infected in several places. With those infections, a skin graft would not have held. In order to treat her, Falcone and his team needed to locate a pig and graft strips of pig skin onto her head. Several days later, after the scalp had been treated, the doctor was able to graft Dulcina’s own skin onto her badly damaged scalp.

Five years later, Falcone returned to the Amazon for some light work and a final consultation with Dulcina. The Syracuse Rotary Club also provided Falcone with a catalog from which Dulcina could choose two wigs. Upon leaving for the final time, Falcone reflected in Amazon Surgeon, “One last fleeting look over my shoulder filled me with nostalgia. Indeed, God’s world is small, and by his grace I found my life’s greatest adventure in this remote area of the Amazon River.” Other Central New York doctors, nurses and medical personnel have been inspired to similar adventures over the course of the last few decades.

St. Elizabeth’s nurse Barbara Groves, RN, was part of a team of four medical staffers who ventured to El Salvador last year. They went there under the auspices of the Episcopal Dioceses of Central New York. The Utica hospital donated medical supplies to the effort and Groves said the hospital was “very, very supportive.” The volunteer medical mission, which included doctors, a dentist, an eye doctor and nurses, along with other personnel, went from village to village, setting up typically in a schoolhouse and screening people for a variety of ailments. One of the special aspects of this trip, according to Groves, was the inclusion of two Episcopal priests and a psychologist. Mental health care is often neglected in the Third World. “That was a good addition,” Groves said. “There’s been a lot of trauma there. Here we have a lot of therapists for anything but there that isn’t the case.”

While for some of the personnel the encounter with Third-World culture was startling, Groves’ experience in Haiti steeled her for it. During the 1990s, she spent two years working in the heart of Haiti at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the Artibonite Valley. Although the trip was expensive for all those involved, Groves finds volunteering abroad to be an invaluable experience. “It’s very rewarding,” she said. “You know you’re making a difference.” Meanwhile, through the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS), Dr. Andrew Wickline, a parishioner at St. Mary’s in Clinton and a doctor at St. Elizabeth’s, ventured to Ghana in 2004.

The people Wickline found himself helping weren’t the destitute of Ghana but the professionals and others gainfully employed. Orthopedic care is in short supply in that West African nation and the people must travel to Europe or farther in order to obtain it. “I wanted to lend my orthopedic skills to people who don’t have access,” he said. A native of rural West Virginia, Wickline thought he was familiar with inordinate poverty. Wickline’s experiences in Ghana showed him that he didn’t know how well he had it growing up.

“I’m from West Virginia and the county that I’m from probably has one blinking light,” he said. “I thought I knew what poor was but at least there’s opportunity there [in West Virginia].” The Ghana experience also provided him with a certain sound perspective. For instance, although he is a successful physician, the experience taught him what to value and what to keep at arm’s length.

He also saw a gratitude in Ghanaian patients that is sometimes missing with those in the West. “The patients there were extremely grateful,” he said. “These patients were so happy that we had come there.” He had hoped to return to Ghana this spring through FOCOS but the trip was postponed until November. Dr. Joel Rosenberg, a cardiac surgeon at St. Joseph’s in Syracuse, has traveled the world performing heart surgery. During his career as a volunteer he has performed surgery in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Turkey, South Africa, India, the Phillipines and China.

Although sometimes he travels with just one assistant, he is often accompanied by an operating room staff. Rosenberg was inspired to volunteer when he was invited to a conference of the Pan Pacific Cardiac Society where he was a guest lecturer. It occurred to him that as long as he was there, he could offer his services as a surgeon and have the procedure teleconferenced back to the assembled doctors.

Since then, he has often combined practice abroad with education. “I tend to teach and operate,” he said.
Rosenberg noted that there is an element of adventure in his work.
“I think it’s adventurous in some sense,” he said. “In the U.S. we’re so sheltered. If you need a transfusion, you get a transfusion. In the Phillipines, you have to first find a relative to come in and donate for you before the operation can be performed.” In some cases, foreign governments create hurdles for doctors wishing to practice there. The bureaucratic structures of countries such as Russia and China are a little taxing. However, once past that challenge such countries are often very helpful, according to Rosenberg. While Rosenberg is able to finance his trip with the help of corporate sponsorship, St. Joseph’s has also been helpful in donating equipment to his volunteer services and permitting staff members time off to accompany him.

He believes that his work abroad is fulfilling for himself and a benefit to the patients, it is also a patriotic service of sorts. “It allows us to be a kind of ambassador,” he said. “No matter what you think of America, we care about people. You’re able to talk to people on a one-on-one basis.”

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