Part of being a doctor is repaying what has been given to you. That means educating new physicians and helping others who are less fortunate. Many plastic surgeons help by volunteering to perform surgery. They especially love international volunteerism and find it very fulfilling. I was selected in the spring of 1998 by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons to travel to 5 cities in Eastern Europe to lecture on breast surgery (reconstructive and aesthetic) and help the local plastic surgeons perform surgery on their more difficult cases. This was to educate the plastic surgeons as well as treat less fortunate patients.
I have spoken to others about their international volunteerism and some voiced other reasons they go. This includes the ability to perform cleft lip and palate surgery which they would not be able to do here in the US because they were not a member of a cleft lip and palate team at an academic institution. Also it looks good for their aesthetic patients to see international volunteerism on the plastic surgeon’s website or in office pictures and displays. It makes the patient feel good about going to this doctor because that physician cares for others and travels to help the less fortunate. Even Dr. 90210 in Beverly Hills heavily promoted his work in South America on his show.
Although it is admirable to help less fortunate patients in under-developed countries, there are needy patients right here. My wife and I have always felt that if every physician would donate one day a month to care for and treat nonpaying patients, healthcare for these patients would improve and no one would be lacking medical care and assistance if they lacked money. A large and expensive government health plan to cover the uninsured could be significantly reduced.
After my experience with international volunteerism, I wanted to help the less fortunate in my own community. I started donating my time and expertise to the John F Kennedy Clinic in 1998 to care for their patients. The Mercy JFK Clinic is committed to provide quality medical care and compassionate service to patients of all ages and serves the health needs of individuals who are uninsured or underinsured. For 17 years I have been the only plastic surgeon who regularly attends the clinic to care for their patients. I am in the clinic two mornings a month to help care for patients ranging in age from one month to 100 years. I see anything in the skin that needs attention from the top of the head to the toes. I perform breast reconstructions on breast cancer patients who undergo mastectomies to treat their breast cancers.
As a result of this work, I recently received recognition from the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons for my involvement in community service and volunteerism. The award was initiated after the 9/11 bombings of New York City and the Pentagon to honor plastic surgeons who give directly back to their community. With this recognition, I was honored as a plastic surgeon who has “volunteered their skills and are inspired to serve their communities as well as their country.”
Although less glamorous, volunteerism in your own community may be more helpful and more rewarding than international medical tourism. You don’t have to travel to some far off country to show you care and want to help others by giving back. We all know Sir Thomas Brown’s saying of 1642: Charity begins at home.
Thomas J. Francel, M.D.