Meet six physicians who are saving the world, one patient at a time.
She wanders to trouble spots. She wonders at our common bonds.
As a child on Chicago’s south side, it wasn’t unusual for Pam Ogor to have a National Geographic magazine in her hands. Her interest in travel blossomed into a West Africa trip in college. She became a family practice physician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group in Glendale. But her wanderlust never left.
In June 2005, Ogor finished a class on humanitarian relief and disaster at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina struck. Ogor headed south.
In Gulfport, Miss., she and another doctor worked out of a truck. In Gautier, Miss., she helped folks from a deli. She went to the area once a week every three to four months until 2007.
Meanwhile, in October 2005, an earthquake hit the Kashmir region of Pakistan. Relief International, an aid organization, asked for Ogor’s assistance, and she went. Her Glendale patients don’t mind when the doctor is out.
“They are used to the idea of me leaving, and my patients get involved, too,” she says. “Not everyone has the ability to pick up and do these things, but my impression is, most people have really caring hearts.”
Her travels have changed her perspective on life, especially how it can change instantly. It helps her to calm her American patients when they doubt their own future. “Even in places where we aren’t speaking the same language, humanity runs through people the same, all over the world,” Ogor says.
Serving Home and Abroad
What started out as an adventure has turned into a life-saving obligation at war zones around the world.
n 1998, Dr. David Gourlay saw an Army Reserves recruitment flier in the Medical College of Wisconsin office area where he and other first-year surgery residents gathered. He picked it up, flipped it over a few times, then decided to call the recruiter – putting very little thought into the call, other than imagining the outcome could be a “cool adventure.”
While still in the midst of his studies, Gourlay ended up committing to eight years with the Army Reserves. And after completing his pediatric and general surgery training in 2006, Gourlay officially joined the ranks.
He is now a lieutenant colonel with the 452nd Combat Support Hospital in Milwaukee. He is also the medical director of trauma at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He has mobilized four times – Kosovo in 2007, Iraq in 2010, and Afghanistan in 2012 and 2014.
Each of Gourlay’s deployments has been as an “augmentee” to a forward surgical team. Forward surgical teams typically include about two dozen surgeons, nurses and medics who are positioned very close to the fighting. The group provides critical medical care to stabilize soldiers enough so that they can be transported to the nearest hospital.
“What’s fascinating about all of the teams I’ve been on,” Gourlay says, “is that we’re not organic to the unit. We just drop in and out as physicians, so you don’t know the people, but no matter which team we’re with, it’s a really tight-knit group.”
Deployments last three to four months, which is relatively short compared to a typical soldier’s stay of nine months or more. Still, back at home, Gourlay’s medical partners have to cover his patients, and his wife is left alone to care for their three children.
“When I get home, I don’t necessarily notice a change [in myself], but my wife notices it,” Gourlay says. “I think I have more of an appreciation for the importance of certain things, and the lack of importance of other things.”
Gourlay believes he will be deployed again, though he is not sure when. Part of him wants to go, but he knows how challenging it is for those he leaves behind.
“I feel like I grow a lot as a person and a physician,” he says. “I feel like if I don’t do it, who will?”
Combating violence: Creating men of significance
How one team went from playing pickup basketball to lifting up the city’s at-risk youth.
One day, after wrapping up their weekly basketball game at the Jewish Community Center, Mark Wichman and his buddies got into a discussion about Milwaukee’s mean streets and the insurmountable odds stacked against many of the city’s young men. Wichman, the team doctor for the Milwaukee Admirals and an orthopedic surgeon with Aurora Health Care, was concerned that these inner-city youth were falling through the cracks.
“A lot of these boys don’t have a good role model,” Wichman said to his friends. “Their day might just consist of people barking at them with no positive dialog.”
That was 1998. Soon after the b-ball game, Wichman and his friends started working toward Operation Dream, a mentoring program designed to give young boys the support they need to become “men of significance” within their community.
The players on that makeshift basketball team – which included judges, physicians and Rodney Bourrage, a former middle school teacher who’s now the executive director of Operation Dream – decided to focus on boys ages 4-18, because that demographic was committing the majority of the crimes, joining gangs and becoming too-young unwed fathers.
Quickly, they identified boys who could be helped by joining Operation Dream. Today, about 100-150 boys are in the program.
In the beginning, it was run like a military boot camp. Discipline remains important, Wichman says, but there’s a larger focus on education, mentorship and even job-training for the older boys.
During the school year, Operation Dream meets early Saturday mornings at the LaVarnway Boys & Girls Club on North 15th Street, where the boys listen to a motivational guest speaker and are divided into groups by age for the activity of the day. During the summer, older boys are hired by many small-business owners to do manual labor. Sometimes, the money they earn helps their family pay the bills.
Operation Dream took about a decade to get ramped up, with Wichman paying money out of his pocket in the beginning to keep the organization’s insurance current. When the recession hit in 2008, fundraising was particularly hard. But community support is building, and Operation Dream was even featured in one of Aaron Rodgers’ popular itsaaron.com spots.
By the summer of 2015, Milwaukee’s homicide rate had surpassed the total for all of 2014, prompting national headlines. Receiving far fewer headlines is the group of basketball friends trying to stem the violence.
“There are so many philanthropic people in the community who love the concept of creating self-reliance and responsibility,” Wichman says. The message for young men who sign on: “If you stick with the program, you are not going to end up on the wrong side of a gun, in prison or in a gang.”
Improving the Human Experience
Women in the Third World who suffer from gynecological issues have a dire need. She goes there to help them.
or each of the last five years, urogynecologist Dr. Tracy Capes and three friends – two physicians and a nurse midwife – have traveled to Bangladesh to treat women in need.
The group, known as A Stitch in Time, assembles teams that volunteer for short-term missions to perform gynecological surgeries in the country’s remote hospitals. The team also provides free supplies and medications.
Despite medical advances, there remains a taboo disposition surrounding pelvic floor dysfunction, including incontinence and prolapse. In Muslim countries, such as Bangladesh, where a woman must maintain modesty at all times, the diagnosis makes life miserable.
The most prevalent issue Capes’ team treats is prolapse, a slippage of the uterus that usually occurs when pelvic floor muscles stretch and weaken from childbirth, unattended delivery or years of manual labor. The uterus slips down into or protrudes outside of the vagina, making it difficult to walk, sleep and have sexual intercourse without pain.
“Husbands leave them; these women are outcasts, left to fend for themselves,” says Capes, a doctor with Aurora Health Care. “Besides the physical discomfort, there is a social stigma, too.”
Capes focuses on pelvic organ prolapse because the operation to repair it is most often a hysterectomy and pelvic reconstruction. It’s reliable and usually has few complications. Patients are typically up and about within 24 hours, says Capes.
In 2014 alone, the doctors performed about 30 surgeries in just four days in Bangladesh. Still, more than 100 women were lined up outside the hospital waiting to be seen, a heartbreaking image, says Capes.
Two years ago, the group expanded to Guatemala. It’s the same situation there. “You feel like you’re doing a good job, then you look outside and see you’re turning away half the women,” she says. “The need is never going to end.”
Teaching Tomorrow’s Leaders
Emergency medicine in Ethiopia is a world away from his day job in Wauwatosa.
When a country’s largest public hospital only has limited access to running water, and the patients’ waiting room is outdoors, it’s not surprising that a plastic soda bottle is the makeshift tool for a lot of medical equipment.
Those are the conditions Dr. Michael Decker, chief transformation officer for Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, contends with every year when he leaves the comfort of the Wauwatosa hospital for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
There, he’s helping to build the first emergency medicine program at Black Lion Hospital.
Decker, also an emergency room physician at Froedtert, began going to Ethiopia three years ago, prompted by reading an email asking for volunteers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just gotten a grant to improve the health of the HIV population in Ethiopia. Part of that work included developing an emergency medicine program in the country, which piqued Decker’s interest.
“Knowledge is not the problem over there – their doctors are as good as anyone on the planet – but the magnitude of the lack of resources is impressive,” he says.
Decker has gone to Ethiopia three times, teaching physicians about medicine the first year, medicine and leadership skills in year two, and leadership in year three. As the program continues to advance, the younger physicians must be able to go out into the countryside and teach their elders about the changes, which takes confidence.
Ethiopia does not have a country-wide insurance program. Patients are diagnosed and then pay what they can. If they cannot afford every treatment, they only receive what they can pay for.
This system was brought into sharp relief when a man went to Decker’s Ethiopian counterpart and was diagnosed with pneumonia, heart and kidney failure. He needed dialysis three times a week, which would have cost him 1,500 birr (the equivalent of $71), plus additional medical care. The man had only 1,000 birr ($47), given to him by his village. After reflection, the man decided to go home and die, rather than drain his community’s resources.
“Initially, I was disturbed by his answer,” Decker says. “What I learned is, people are making life-and-death decisions with a combination of resources, faith and their community, which is different than the U.S., where we make individual-based decisions.”
Decker plans to keep making annual treks to Ethiopia and will add two more countries to his itinerary this fall – Ghana and Belize.
“I always wanted to do international health,” he says. “What has happened is, I’ve developed relationships, and they’ve asked for more support.”
Improving Societal Relationships
Treating hundreds of patients in Guatemala helps close the culture gap.
What should have been a one-time trip to Guatemala during his residency in 1997 has turned into an 18-year mission for Dr. Matthew Connolly.
Connolly, the medical director for the hospitalist and palliative care program at Columbia St. Mary’s, was inspired on that first trip by his mentor in the residency program and the people he helped in Jalapa, Guatemala. As the years ticked on, he got more involved, eventually becoming the chief resident for the aid organization he travels with, Illinois-based Latin American Medical Providers.
During the five days the group is in Guatemala, they’re able to treat about 2,500 patients using two teams that take trucks into the villages. Connolly drives one of the trucks. Back at the local hospital, another group sets up two operating rooms, where they typically complete about 110 surgeries during the week.
The group spent about 15 years traveling to Jalapa, but after the election of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina in 2011, there were reports of Canadian doctors being kidnapped and locals being executed. Connolly’s group took a year off at the advice of the Guatemalan and United States governments, and has since relocated its work to San Martin, Guatemala. There, patients have electronic medical records, and the physicians are able to do real primary-care work, Connolly says.
He’d like to increase their Guatemala visits to quarterly trips and hopes to one day take along his two young children, now 1 and 3, so they can experience the culture.
“As heath care providers, we have such a unique set of skills,” he says. “When you come back from a place like Guatemala, you suddenly realize all of the resources you have. It re-energizes you for the work you do here. And I believe it helps contribute to healthy relationships between two different societies.