Docs and medics have scalpel, will travel

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Carol Sorgen

Orthopedic surgeon Michael Murphy — an attending surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital and a member of Greater Chesapeake Hand Specialists — spends most of the year operating on patients right here in Baltimore.

But twice a year, Murphy leads a group of medically trained volunteers to the Dominican Republic city of La Romana, where they examine and treat about 150 residents during a week-long stay. Their next trip begins Nov. 6, with a follow-up trip scheduled for April 2011.

The biannual missions were begun more than 15 years ago by Dr. Shaw Wilgis, a former member of Greater Chesapeake Hand Specialists. Murphy took over leadership of the missions in 2002.

For each visit, he recruits different nurses from his practice, as well as medical residents and fellows from hospitals in the Baltimore-Washington region, to accompany him. Prior to the team’s arrival, patients are evaluated by physicians in La Romana to determine who will see the Baltimore group.

Murphy and his volunteers typically arrive on a Saturday, and evaluate 150 to 200 cases beginning Sunday morning. Their patients arrive from across the country, often dressed in their “Sunday best.”

Surgery marathon

From Monday through Friday, Murphy and his team perform surgeries for 12 to 14 hours a day. The following Saturday is a final post-op evaluation of the patients, and then the team heads home.

Once Murphy and his volunteers leave La Romana, local physicians take over the care of the patients, but Murphy is available for phone consultations until his return visit the following April, when he may see a number of the patients for follow- up.

During the hectic week in La Romana, Murphy himself performs approximately 40 “pretty complex” operations, treating a variety of injuries and disorders, including congenital birth defects, severe burns from working with primitive cooking equipment, and injuries suffered from working with techniques and machinery long out-of-date in our own country.

For cases that require even more specific expertise, such as a recently performed hip replacement, Murphy will recruit another surgeon to join them.

“It’s a shoestring operation,” said Murphy, “but we have a small basic hospital set up with two operating rooms running every day. This kind of care is not available to the residents there otherwise,” he added.

Making a difference

The missions not only provide the residents of La Romana with first-rate medical care, but also give Murphy and his team an opportunity to use their medical skills in ways and in situations that are different from what they see in their day-to-day practice in the U.S.

For the medical residents and fellows who accompany him, the trips also provide “real-world” experience that differs from what they gain in this country.

For Murphy — who credits his team for doing most of the hard work — the twice yearly trips give him a great sense of satisfaction, especially when helping La Romana’s children.

“What we can do for them has a major impact on their quality of life,” he said. “That’s why we all went into medicine in the first place. We don’t always have the same impact at home.”

The trips are sponsored by the Dorothy Scott Fund at Union Memorial Hospital, with additional funding provided by the Dominican Republic’s Central Medical Corporation.