UCSF Physicians Provide Otolaryngology Services to Rural Guatemalans

June 16, 2014

In February 2014, Jeffrey Markey, MD, a third-year resident, Matthew Russell, MD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, and Marika Russell, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, had the opportunity to spend a week performing surgery in Guatemala as part of a global health team.

While we in the U.S. often take for granted the advanced medicine that is available to us, we sometimes forget that much of the world today continues to lack basic medical and surgical care.

That was seen firsthand by three members of the UCSF Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Department who recently traveled to Nuevo Progreso, Guatemala for a week-long surgical excursion with the Hospital de la Familia (HDLF). Assistant Professors Matt Russell, MD and Marika Russell, MD and third year resident Jeff Markey, MD were able to make a substantial difference in the lives of rural Guatemalans like:

· the woman complaining of progressive airway obstruction who had her thyroid removed,

· the people hoping to end years of leaking ears who had their ear drums replaced, and

· the 12-year-old boy, unable to breathe through his nostrils for ten years, who had a metal wire removed from deep in his nose a decade after placing it there as a toddler.

HDLF was established 40 years ago following the chance meeting in western Guatemala between a San Francisco businessman and an Italian priest. Today HDLF is estimated to serve as the primary care source of more than 200,000 Guatemalans and Mexicans over nearly 200 square miles. Four times each year an American multi-specialty surgical team travels to Nuevo Progreso to operate. On these occasions patients travel from across the region for care, often making two or three day journeys. The visiting surgical team includes members from throughout the United States and includes general, ophthalmologic, plastic, obstetrics/gynecology and otolaryngologic specialties.

Members of the UCSF Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Department had sought ways to export their talents and tend to those in need, when they learned of the opportunity with the HDLF

“I’d had some experience performing head and neck surgery in Zanzibar as a medical student”, said Dr. Markey. “I was searching for an opportunity to care for patients in an international setting, for patients with few other options. HDLF was a perfect fit – and when Matt and Marika Russell agreed to join I knew we’d found the right dynamic to really do some good.”

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The HDLF surgical team first arrived in Guatemala City before driving for six hours on a mountainous road to rustic Nuevo Progreso. The 53 surgeons, nurses, Spanish interpreters and scrub technicians soon found they were kindred spirits.

“It was a highly functional team” noted Dr. Matt Russell. “Despite the fact that most of us had never met before, our commitment to high quality service led to amazing teamwork.”

The team atmosphere was a productive one. The surgery crew evaluated and treated 700 patients during the week and performed 150 surgeries. In addition to the procedures described above, the team performed cleft palate repair, cataract removal, hernia repair, tympanoplasty and thyroidectomy. Guatemalans and Mexicans, young and old, traveled to Nuevo Progreso for treatment and were often in the operating room the very same day.

Dr. Matt Russell added that the multitude of procedures and clinic visits, no matter how simple, “can often have a profound impact on someone’s quality of life.”

“Matt and Marika Russell were fantastic, the country was beautiful, and I’ll never forget the patients,” says Dr. Markey. “I’d encourage all residents and faculty alike to get involved with global surgery.”