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Mission of healing is joint effort

(Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2012
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Dr. Mercedes Concepcion


Concepcion, an anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is a leader of the hospital’s annual, weeklong orthopedic surgery mission in the Dominican Republic, where they perform primarily hip and knee replacements. This year’s Op Walk Boston trip begins March 21.

Q. What motivates you to participate in an international mission such as this one to your native country?

A. Although I grew up relatively poor, we always learned to help other people. It has always been my ambition to help others.

Q. What is the need in the Dominican Republic for a program like yours?

A. We are a country that has over 10 million people - 8 million Dominicans and 2 million Haitians. Probably over 40 percent of the people live under the poverty line. So many people there are affected by arthritis - people who want to be able to walk without continuous pain, just to get a job.

Q. What is the caliber of the medical care there?

A. Hospitals are supposedly for everybody - there are public hospitals. But medicine has become very private. Medicine is very advanced for those private patients who can pay a lot. But for the immense majority of the population, it’s not reachable.

Q. Does working in their less-than-state-of-the-art operating rooms change you as a doctor?

A. You have to improvise sometimes. Obviously, we don’t have the facilities there that we have here. If that [pulse] monitor is not working, we do our surgery with our hand on the pulse of the patient to make sure they’re OK. And it’s not only medical skills [that we gain], but also more compassion perhaps. We feel so bad for those patients who have nothing.

Q. Have these trips altered your view of American medicine?

A. Patients in the United States are a little entitled, and that’s not what you see there. They are so grateful for everything you do for them. It teaches us to understand that people are different and circumstances are different. I think it makes us much more flexible in our practicing here.

Q. You must develop a strong camaraderie with others on the trip.

A. It’s amazing. We encourage each other. If this mission is successful, it’s because we work as a group.

Q. It must take a lot of preparation to bring a team of doctors and nurses down for a full week.

A. We start preparing six to seven months in advance. We send the cargo in February with most of the equipment and different items we need. The [replacement] joints are given to us by a company - we probably have a million dollars in joints. Those we take with us, [traveling in a donated private plane,] as well as some of the narcotics.

Q. So, you advertise in the local papers for patients and then local doctors prescreen them before you decide whether they are good candidates for surgery?

A. Occasionally, there are patients who we decide are not safe to [operate on]. We didn’t choose two patients they sent last year. Generally we do 60 joints and 45 patients - we do a lot of [operations on both the right and left side].

Q. Are there many more potential patients that you can’t get to?

A. People may not have money to pay for the bus to come to the city, many people don’t have a place to stay in the city. We do a lot of good, but we just scrape the surface.

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