So how does Solidarity Bridge find local surgeons to work with in Bolivia? Who are they? Today we are launching our second mini-blog series of the summer, in which we’ll introduce you to just a few of our Bolivian medical partners.
In our first blog you’ll meet Dr. Vallejos, better known as Dr. Jaime, whose dedication and skills have been key to the success of our General Surgery Program.
Written by: Jodi Grahl, Director of General Surgery, Gynecology & Pacemaker Programs
Meet Dr. Jaime!
In early 2009, Dr. Jaime Vallejos was a young general surgeon working at the main public hospital in Cochabamba, Viedma Hospital, when he was named to organize the surgery schedule for a visiting mission team from Solidarity Bridge. It was the first Solidarity Bridge General Surgery Mission Trip and would focus on training in laparoscopic surgery.
Laparoscopy was just being introduced at Viedma Hospital. However, a few years earlier Dr. Vallejos had taken advantage of study abroad to learn the basics. When US surgeons Drs. Malcolm Bilimoria and John Gregory began to operate with the Viedma surgeons, they quickly noted that Dr. Vallejos, who everyone knows as Jaime, was ahead of his peers.
Jaime participated in all 30 surgeries performed during that mission trip. After the US surgeons left, he applied what he had learned to operate on other patients who could not be served by the mission team. The following year, Dr. Gay Garrett joined the Solidarity Bridge mission team, and a mentorship began between Gay and Jaime. Shortly after that, then SB Executive Director Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa asked Jaime if he would like to partner with Solidarity Bridge in a permanent General Surgery Program to provide surgeries throughout the year rather than only during mission trips. Jaime was approached in light not only of his surgical skills, but also his demonstrated commitment to place his talents and time at the service of the neediest patients, as well as his openness to work with and continually upgrade his skills alongside the US missioners.
To date, Jaime has performed well over 100 surgeries through our year-round General Surgery Program. Jaime and the local SB office, Puente de Solidaridad, have even launched a Mobile Laparoscopic Surgery Unit to take services to smaller and more distant hospitals that serve the most marginalized patients.
In February 2014, I sat down with Jaime to talk about what his partnership with Solidarity Bridge has meant for his career. Jaime is most grateful for the opportunity to operate year-after-year alongside surgeons as highly specialized and experienced as his friend Gay Garrett, continually fine-tuning and expanding his capacities. To quote Jaime: “Uno nunca termina de aprender” (One never stops learning).
In addition, Jaime is now in high demand as a speaker and instructor on various topics directly derived from his experience with Solidarity Bridge. He presents frequent talks to the Surgical Society of Cochabamba on the latest instruments and materials used in laparoscopic surgery, thanks to his dominion of the same gained by operating with US surgeons and by his access to materials donated for use in the General Surgery Program. For example, the surgical mesh that Gay taught Jaime to use for hernia repair is not stocked by local hospitals, given its high price tag and local unfamiliarity with its use. But patients treated through the SB program reap the benefits it offers thanks to our generous donors and Jaime’s skilled hands. Jaime beamed with pride while recounting recent visits by surgeons from Chile and Mexico who admired the tools and materials he nimbly employs in his surgeries.
When I asked Jaime if there is anything he would like those in the U.S. to understand about his work in Bolivia, he noted how surprised US missioners often are to see the conditions of Bolivian patients. Many suffer for years before getting treatment because lack of funds leads them to delay visiting a doctor. As a result, by the time they have surgery there is additional scar tissue or other complications to manage. Jaime would like to see more outreach campaigns to encourage people to seek help sooner, but that will require greatly expanding capacity to serve a higher number of patients.
Asked about the future, Jaime noted that he is now expanding beyond gall bladder extractions and hernia repairs. He is especially interested in further training in laparoscopic colon surgery, both megacolon surgery for Chagas patients and colon cancer surgery. Jaime knows of no surgeons in Bolivia offering laparoscopic surgery for colon cancer, and he sees a pressing need.
Finally, Jaime confessed that his dream is to travel to the United States to participate in an advanced laparoscopy course and to see for himself how US hospitals are set up and how they manage surgical patients. Solidarity Bridge has been supporting a growing number of such “Solidarity Visits” in which Bolivian partners travel to the US. Perhaps the next time we see Jaime it will be in your local hospital!
Be sure to watch for the next two blogs in our mini-series, where we proudly introduce you to more of our esteemed Bolivian medical partners!