ACS Honors Five Members with Surgical Humanitarian and Volunteerism Awards

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News from the American College of Surgeons
2017 Clinical Congress

Last night, five surgeons received the 2017 American College of Surgeons (ACS)/Pfizer Surgical Humanitarian Awards and Surgical Volunteerism Awards in recognition of their selfless efforts as volunteer surgeons who provide care to medically underserved patients abroad.

The extraordinary contributions of these five award recipients were recognized at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress 2017 during the annual Board of Governors reception and dinner. The awards are determined by the ACS Board of Governors Surgical Volunteerism and Humanitarian Awards Workgroup and are administered through the ACS Operation Giving Back program.

The ACS/Pfizer Surgical Humanitarian Award recognizes Fellows who have dedicated much of their careers to ensuring that underserved populations have access to surgical care and have done so without expecting commensurate compensation. This year, humanitarian awards were granted to two surgeons.

Robert E. Cropsey, MD, FACS, a general surgeon from Ypsilanti, Mich., received the Surgical Humanitarian Award for his work in establishing two hospitals and serving the needs of patients in the West African country of Togo for the last three decades.

Dr. Cropsey began his medical career to become a surgeon so that he could live in Africa and offer his services to those in need. After completing his residency, Dr. Cropsey and his family moved to Togo to provide care to the medically underserved people of the country. In 1985, Dr. Cropsey, collaborating with locals and other medical professionals and missionaries, opened the Karolyn Kempton Memorial Christian Hospital (KKMCH), Togo. Since then, Dr. Cropsey has served as the hospital director, chief of staff, and chief of surgery. KKMCH admits more than 3,000 patients annually, and houses an adult intensive care unit (ICU), pediatric ICU, ultrasound rooms, isolation rooms, and two operating rooms capable of supporting most major operations. KKMCH trains medical students and surgical residents and is also in the process of establishing, with the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons, a five-year residency program to train local surgeons.

In addition to his work in establishing KKMCH, Dr. Cropsey helped to open the Hospital of Hope in Mango, a remote community in northern Togo lacking modern health care. Between 2005 and 2015, Dr. Cropsey traveled between Togo and the U.S. to plan, coordinate, fundraise, lay out, and build the Hospital of Hope, which opened in 2015 and now sees thousands of patients who were previously unable to receive care. The hospital also provides community health education services, mobile clinics, and community development services.

Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, FACS, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon from Charlotte, N.C., received the Surgical Humanitarian Award for his more than 50 years of work in providing medical care, particularly cardiothoracic surgical services, and establishing a medical infrastructure in Central America.

Dr. Robicsek began his humanitarian work in the early 1960s in Honduras, treating surgical tuberculosis patients. He then moved on to providing direct surgical care to patients in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Eastern Europe. Dr. Robicsek was the first to perform open heart operations in Honduras and Guatemala and initiated and assisted the first open heart procedure by a native surgeon in Belize, where he maintains an active open heart surgery program. He has also brought sustainable medical aid to the Central American region through training medical professionals, delivering supplies, and helping develop local health care infrastructure.

In the 1970s, Dr. Robicsek arranged to have patients from Guatemala flown into Charlotte for operations, and he accepted Guatemalan surgeons for training fellowships. His work with the Guatemalan government and health care system led to the founding of Unidad de Cirugía Cardiovascular de Guatemala—or UNICAR—the Guatemalan Heart Institute, where more than 700 heart operations are performed annually. To help these efforts, Dr. Robicsek arranges to have more than $1.5 million in new and refurbished hospital supplies delivered to the region each year.

A major part of Dr. Robicsek’s humanitarian work focuses on training Central American surgeons in Charlotte so they can return home with the skills necessary to care for their native populations. These efforts have led to the establishment of burn units, mammography services, echocardiogram networks, catheter labs, and more across Central America. The effects of Dr. Robicsek’s work in this regard continue to grow each year.

The ACS/Pfizer Surgical Volunteerism Award recognizes ACS Fellows and members who are committed to giving back to society through significant contributions to surgical care as volunteers. This year, volunteerism awards were granted to three surgeons.

Sherry Wren, MD, FACS, a general surgeon from Palo Alto, Calif., received the International Surgical Volunteerism Award for her work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors without Borders) in several African countries, as well as her work in the U.S. aimed at preparing surgeons to provide international humanitarian aid.

In more than 10 years of doing volunteer work with MSF, Dr. Wren’s work has covered a wide range of surgical disciplines, particularly general, obstetric, and orthopaedic surgery. She has provided surgical care and humanitarian aid in countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr. Wren’s first long-term project was at the University Teaching Hospital, Harare, Zimbabwe, where she created a surgical residency exchange program with the University of Zimbabwe that was recognized by the American Board of Surgery. The program allowed surgeons and residents from Stanford University to travel to Zimbabwe to learn and assist. However, unlike most international programs, this one created the opportunity for surgeons and students from Zimbabwe to train at Stanford.

Dr. Wren also launched a medical student interest group in surgery for women in Zimbabwe, where there are no female general surgeons. She has directly trained more than 40 Zimbabwean surgeons in trauma, ultrasonography, low-resource laparoscopy, and other procedures. Her work in Africa led to Dr. Wren’s election to the College of Surgeons of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA), a group similar to ACS for the 14 participating countries. During the 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus, Dr. Wren worked extensively with surgeons in Ebola-ravaged African countries.

In 2010, Dr. Wren designed the International Humanitarian Aid Skills Course at Stanford, which was the first in the U.S. to offer physicians the knowledge and skills to function in a low-resource environment. Since it was created, the course has been offered 10 times and has more than 400 graduates. It offers didactics, case studies, simulation, and video-based teaching for critical areas including tropical medicine, low-resource anesthesia, burns and wounds, orthopaedic trauma, head injury, and post-partum hemorrhage.

CAPT Zsolt Thomas Stockinger, MD, FACS, a U.S. Navy trauma surgeon from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, received the Military Surgical Volunteerism Award for his service during a U.S. military mission to Haiti to provide medical care after the 2010 earthquake, as well as his service during voluntary deployments to Afghanistan.

Dr. Stockinger has consistently volunteered for difficult missions to provide surgical assistance in austere environments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and other countries. Following the earthquake in 2010, Dr. Stockinger volunteered to deploy to Haiti and serve as a clinician. Once he arrived, he realized there was a need to assist with the planning and organization in addition to medical care. When the USNS Comfort became the referral center for Haiti’s medical facilities, Dr. Stockinger developed criteria for accepting incoming patients on the ship, as well as patient flow and discharge plans. He was one of only four general surgeons aboard the ship for the first three weeks of the mission until additional personnel could arrive, and the only U.S. military general/trauma surgeon present for the entire seven-week Comfort mission.

In 2011 and 2012, when Dr. Stockinger was chief of trauma at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) hospital in Kandahar, he was involved in efforts that led to the Afghan army’s regional hospital becoming the Afghan Level I trauma center for the region. The NATO hospital then became the subspecialty referral center for complex cases. In 2013, while volunteering as a NATO regional command surgeon in Helmand province, Dr. Stockinger worked with coalition and Afghan army personnel to establish a temporary facility operated by Afghan surgical teams that had been deployed to Helmand from Kabul. By the end of his tour, funding was secured and construction began on a permanent facility, which was the first ever Afghan army surgical facility in southern Afghanistan.

In addition to these missions, Dr. Stockinger has volunteered for foreign training assistance missions since 2006. He has established self-sustaining war/trauma surgery courses in Pakistan, Georgia, and Ukraine. He has conducted site surveys in Ghana and the Philippines to help increase U.S. humanitarian assistance to underserved populations, and he helped the government of Mauritius develop a nationwide disaster response plan in 2008.

Yihan Lin, MD, a general surgery resident from Denver, Colo., received the Surgical Resident Volunteerism Award for leading the effort to create a national surgical and anesthesia plan in Zambia, and for providing patient care and education in other underserved countries.

Dr. Lin has been an active medical volunteer since she was a medical student. She served as student director for the Stout Street Clinic for the homeless in Denver from 2009 to 2010, and then began to work internationally. Dr. Lin traveled to Ecuador, where she worked with the local community on culturally acceptable methods of birth control. In Uganda, Dr. Lin sought to bridge the gap between medical visitors and the community by compiling a dictionary of medical phrases in the local language, Rukiga, and creating a visitor’s handbook for traveling medical professionals. She also performed a needs assessment of hospital technology and equipment and built a storeroom for supplies donated from Project Cure in Colorado. In 2013, Dr. Lin spent a month in Leogane, Haiti, where she operated with local surgeons, sought donations for the local hospitals, and cared for patients in emergency room and clinics.

Beginning in 2015, Dr. Lin participated in the two-year Paul Farmer Global Surgery Fellowship program, which was created to train leaders to promote surgical care, research, and educational issues pertinent to global surgery. During this fellowship, Dr. Lin spent more than a year in Rwanda, where she worked with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to help develop a national surgical, obstetric, and anesthesia plan, with the goal of increasing surgical access to all Rwandans. This involved designing tools to collect baseline surgical data, and will contribute to future work with stakeholders to further develop the country’s surgical priorities in the future in the areas of infrastructure, workforce, information management, and financing. She also spent time in Zambia, where she worked with the Zambian Ministry of Health to create a national surgical and anesthesia plan that has since been signed into law and incorporated into their national health plan. This year, Dr. Lin has also worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, with the goal of advocating for basic surgical care to be a part of universal health coverage. This included the publication of a baseline surgical assessment for countries to use when developing national surgical plans..