As president of the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES), Dr. Jo Buyske has made it her mission to develop a “more humanitarian SAGES,” she said at the organization’s annual meeting last week in San Antonio, Texas.
Toward this end, the University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor and associate executive director of the American Board of Surgery spearheaded a series of initiatives that debuted at the conference. On Thursday, a group of meeting attendees boarded a bus to a Habitat for Humanity construction site where they swapped their surgical scrubs and scalpels for hard hats and hammers to help build a new home for a low-income family. The following day, SAGES sponsored an on-site donor blood bank and a bone marrow testing station at the convention center – both of which were well utilized between sessions – and a number of SAGES surgeons offered to mentor local high school students with an interest in medicine who had been invited to the meeting for the day.
Throughout the week, attendees dropped off used medical text books for medical schools in China and old medical instruments and supplies that for shipment (via Medwish) to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. During the course of the week, SAGES members also gathered information about international volunteerism from the several medical volunteers’ desks located near the SAGES membership booth and Dr. Buyske announced the formation of a SAGES humanitarian task force, charged with identifying new service opportunities and resources for its SAGES members.
The very vocal call to arms is more than just lip service for Dr. Buyske. In her presidential address, aptly titled, “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required” [Luke 12:48], she described her own humbling experiences as a surgical volunteer in remote villages of Chiapas, Mexico; Bohol, Phillipines; and in the Republic of Mozambique, where access to sufficient water and electricity was erratic, at best, and where all of the niceties of surgery in this country, such as having assistants to help scrub, glove, and gown, as well as prepare and handle instruments, were non-existent. “I was not prepared for things as simple as having to pick up and unwrap my own instruments and choosing which sutures to use and which size needle. I was used to having everything handed right to me. It takes a different part of you brain to think about these things.”
Despite at various times having to pull anesthesia tubing from the trash to reuse it, having such poor lighting that she had to wait until the afternoon sun was just right in to perform cesarean sections, and having to use water from the local stream to scrub, Dr. Buyske said that each of the volunteer experiences made her a better person, and a better surgeon,. “You begin to think hard about what you use and why; you become more flexible; and you become more frugal. You revisit surgery in a way you might not have since medical school or residency. And though you’ll be exhausted, you will also be refreshed.”
As surgeons, “we have the great good fortune of doing work that allows us to go to bed every night knowing that just by doing our jobs, by our livelihoods, we have taken care of people; we have improved lives; we have done good. We should pause for a minute and savor the great good fortune, the luck, the wisdom, the hard work that went into a profession that is so fulfilling. but we should also be good stewards of our skills and our good fortune and take advantage of opportunities to be of service,” Dr. Buyske stressed. “As our Japanese friends and colleagues can tell us, our fortune and status can’t be taken for granted. There is no guarantee that it will be with us, even tomorrow.”
Dr. Buyske’s pledge to service was echoed by Dr. Cameron Wright, during the meeting’s Gerald Marks Lecture. A respected thoracic surgeon at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Wright is also a colonel in the Medical Corps of the US Army reserve, which he joined in 2007, “for many reasons,” including the obvious need for qualified surgeons to deal with the many casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the opportunity to experience war surgery, he said. The most important reason, however, was the fact that his son, a heavy weapons specialist in the US Marine Corps “had skin in the game, and I decided I should put my skin in the game as well.”
In a moving slide presentation, Dr. Wright told his story through dramatic pictures, both of the soldiers with whom he served with and those to whom he ministered. Evident in all of the pictures are the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose that pervades military deployments, but also the human destruction that begs for the hands of a skilled surgeon.
— Diana Mahoney