Jeff Shultz stands over his patient, a 36-year-old man. He’s trying to perform a complex heart procedure—a catheter ablation—to stop rapid, irregular heartbeats. He needs to insert a thin, flexible tube into a blood vessel and thread it through to the heart to save the man’s life. But everything is going wrong.
The catheter is shot. The delicate tube has been used far too many times, and the hospital he’s in doesn’t have new ones. It’s nearly impossible for Shultz to steer the dull catheter through his patient’s body. The outdated X-ray equipment he needs to perform the procedure is overheating. Shultz has maybe five minutes before the machine shuts down.
This wouldn’t happen at Methodist Hospital in the Twin Cities, where the heart rhythm specialist usually operates. But he’s in Peru, and he’s out of options. “I honestly didn’t know if I could do it,” Shultz says. “I just stopped and prayed. I decided to give it my all, and I had to leave the rest up to the Lord.” Shultz flipped the catheter around, it miraculously landed in the perfect spot, and his team finished the procedure just seconds before the equipment shut down. The patient was going to be just fine.
This tale is extraordinary, but many Twin Cities doctors find themselves in similar situations as they volunteer to treat patients who wouldn’t otherwise have access to high-quality care. Sometimes it’s at a free clinic in Minnesota. Other times, it’s on a medical mission trip to another country.
“Volunteering is one of the most gratifying things,” Shultz says. “You have day-to-day stresses as a doctor. But when you go to a place like Peru, the appreciation that is shown to you is just unbelievable. People are just so grateful for your help.”
When disaster strikes, doctors are in demand. The massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti was no exception. Pete Melchert, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota, was one of the hundreds of volunteers who flew to Port-au-Prince following the quake. He’s the medical director of Children’s Surgery International, a nonprofit group that provides medical and surgical treatment to kids in underprivileged areas. And he spent nearly a month volunteering in Haiti.
Melchert worked in an orphanage that had been converted into a makeshift hospital. But most patients chose to stay outside for fear of the building collapsing. The team was short of supplies and equipment, and medical emergencies were constant. “I had a woman come to me with pregnancy-associated heart failure,” Melchert says. “We had almost zero capacity to help manage her, but we did. We helped this woman—who in any other situation would be in a cardiac intensive care unit—outdoors without any form of monitoring or diagnostics.”
Cardiology is not Melchert’s specialty, but he went into action to save the woman’s life. He hung the woman’s IV drip bag on a nail on a brick wall. Then he called one of his colleagues at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for a cardiology consult. “We were able to develop a plan, we treated her, and she survived,” Melchert says.
When Melchert returned to the United States, there was still a need for doctors in Haiti. So he called in reinforcements from Minnesota. One of those doctors was Abraham Jacob, a pediatrician who works at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital. Jacob’s eight-day experience in Haiti was just as dramatic as Melchert’s.
“There was a pregnant woman who came pounding on the door at 2 am,” Jacob says. “I hadn’t delivered a baby since medical school, so I had to wake up and remember desperately how to do it.” Jacob threw a mattress on the ground, went to work, and delivered the baby 30 minutes later. “I had to help out and do what was needed. It was an unforgettable experience,” Jacob says.
“When you hear about such a dramatic instance of people in higher need, every physician wants to help out,” Jacob says. “I was more than happy to go [to Haiti], and it felt more like my privilege than anything else.”
Melchert believes that volunteering makes him a better physician. “When you invest the time and effort to serve overseas, you gain so much perspective on the human condition and the practice of medicine,” he says. “You’re improving the quality of your practice, and you’re improving care on both continents.”
Reacting to a crisis is one way to improve care around the world; another is to create relationships with physicians abroad. Steven Koop, an orthopedic surgeon at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, has traveled to Ecuador every year for the last nine years. He cares for children there and has formed professional relationships with South American physicians.
“It’s essential to share your skills and talents with others,” Koop says. “The work that I do is quite specialized. That special knowledge is not widely available in some areas. By going [to Ecuador], there’s an opportunity to give that community some of the resources we have in the United States.”
Koop keeps in touch with the physicians he meets abroad, and sometimes they travel to Minnesota. “I’ve received a number of visiting physicians who come to Gillette because it’s an international hospital,” he says. “They come to see what we do, and they take that knowledge back to their community.”
Jennifer Welsh is another doctor with ties abroad. She practices family medicine at Fairview Clinics in New Brighton and volunteers with Mano a Mano, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul that improves the health and economic well-being of Bolivians. Welsh traveled to Bolivia for the first time in March, and what she saw inspired her to get involved.
“Bolivia has the highest infant mortality rate in South America,” Welsh says. “Lots of people die from preventable diseases due to malnutrition and poor water quality. And there is no public health infrastructure supported by the government in terms of building clinics.”
Mano a Mano builds medical clinics in rural areas, but it needs to train physicians to ensure the clinics succeed. That’s where Welsh comes in. “I’m working with people outside the medical field to help them understand how different health care is in Bolivia than it is here,” Welsh says. “I’ve been thinking about how to get health care providers to participate in Mano a Mano to help Bolivians.”
Koop and Welsh share a common goal: to help doctors in poor countries improve and sustain care for patients.
“I hope what I can provide will last beyond me,” Welsh says. “It isn’t just about me showing up on a particular day to do an assigned task. What I can give can go beyond that encounter and help shape how things are going to be easier in the future.”
Helping at Home
Twin Cities doctors volunteer in our community, too. Inspiring young men and women to pursue careers in medicine is a passion for Elizabeth Arendt, an orthopedic surgeon who works at the University of Minnesota and TRIA Orthopaedic Center. Despite her busy schedule, she makes time to mentor local high school and college students.
“Anyone who wants to shadow me, I try to find a spot for them,” Arendt says. Her students observe surgery in the operating room and interview patients on occasion. Through these experiences, Arendt hopes students can envision themselves with a career in medicine.
“Many of these students want to be physicians, but not all. I’ve had students who’ve gone on to be nurses or work in public health,” Arendt says. “It’s rewarding to see something click. They start to see the future a little bit differently.” Like Arendt, most doctors are motivated to give back.
“One of the misconceptions people have is that doctors are just too busy to do volunteer work,” Welsh says. “I cannot name a physician I know who doesn’t volunteer in some way. It’s not always medical volunteer work. Sometimes it’s work at their church or child’s school. People go into medicine because they want to help others.”
“When you hear about such a dramatic instance of people in higher need, every physician wants to help out. I was more than happy to go [to Haiti], and it felt more like my privilege than anything else.”
“It’s essential to share your skills and talents with others. . . . By going [to Ecuador], there’s an opportunity to give that community some of the resources we have in the United States.”
“Anyone who wants to shadow me, I try to find a spot for them. . . . I’ve had students who’ve gone on to be nurses or work in public health. It’s rewarding to see something click.”
“When you invest the time and effort to serve overseas, you gain so much perspective on the human condition and the practice of medicine.”
“I hope what I can provide will last beyond me. . . . What I can give can go beyond that encounter and help shape how things are going to be easier in the future.”
“Volunteering is one of the most gratifying things. You have day-to-day stresses as a doctor. But . . . the appreciation that is shown to you is just unbelievable.”
Clockwise from top right: Jennifer Welsh, Jeff Shultz, and Pete Melchert address critical needs far from home.
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