Operation Giving Back and ACS Fellows make a difference at home and abroad

From initiatives to address the needs of patients in “surgical deserts” across the U.S. to programs providing surgical training in underserved regions around the world, Operation Giving Back (OGB) is just one of the ways that the American College of Surgeons (ACS) is working to encourage domestic and global volunteerism. In a panel session, Global Engagement, on Tuesday, October 6, faculty discussed how Operation Giving Back and ACS Fellow volunteers are making a difference both at home and abroad.

The session will be available for on-demand viewing through the virtual Clinical Congress meeting platform through December 31.

Mary (Libby) Schroeder, MD, FACS
Mary (Libby) Schroeder, MD, FACS

Mary (Libby) Schroeder, MD, FACS, assistant professor, Medical College of Wisconsin, Wauwatosa, opened the discussion with an update on the Hawassa Collaboration, a programmatic effort to provide research training and mentoring support across sub-Saharan Africa. Her presentation highlighted a research training course that was scheduled for earlier this year at Hawassa University College of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ethiopia and how the course planners were able to transition to a virtual program in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

“We began with a needs assessment performed by OBG and Hawassa in which research was identified as a priority for faculty,” Dr. Schroeder said. “Research is recognized as an increasingly important piece of their academic advancement, and yet medical schools and most residencies do not include this as part of their curriculum. Meanwhile, there is ample opportunity for research in these regions.”

Dr. Schroeder said a three-day in-person course in May was planned, and then the pandemic hit. Rather than cancel the course, they pivoted to a seven-week virtual program. While they encountered a few stumbling blocks, including a prolonged nationwide cellular and internet outage, Dr. Schroeder said the program was a great success and provided a valuable blueprint for future programs.

“So, the keys to our success? No. 1, absolutely, was buy-in from the Hawassa leadership,” Dr. Schroeder said. “We also had the encouragement of OGB leadership and staff, who were absolutely invaluable in terms of the logistics of the courses, keeping us on track, and keeping us in constant communication.”

Anteneh Gadisa, MD
Anteneh Gadisa, MD

Echoing Dr. Schroeder’s assessment, Anteneh Gadisa, MD, assistant professor of surgery and chief executive director of Hawassa University College of Medicine and Health Sciences, discussed some of the challenges they face at his institution and the value of the ACS-Hawassa Collaboration.

“There have been different challenges in performing this collaboration, and COVID-19 has been one of them, as it has challenged most activities around the globe,” Dr. Gadisa said.

While the pandemic has prevented ACS volunteers from working on the ground in Hawassa, he said it has not prevented the ACS-Hawassa Collaboration from making progress and planning for the future.

“Looking forward, our department and the college is committed, along with the American College of Surgeons collaboration, to strengthen and expand our residency program, faculty development for specialty training, and strengthen laparoscopy procedures and other specialty care,” he said. “We are also looking forward to working on different collaborative grants and developing a trauma system including pre-hospital care for the city of Hawassa and the region. We also hope to continue to work on research training and mentorship to improve our research culture.”

Sandra L. Freiwald, MD, FACS
Sandra L. Freiwald, MD, FACS

In the final presentation of the session, Sandra L. Freiwald, MD, FACS, assistant chief of general surgery, Southern California Permanente Medical Group, San Diego, discussed the ACS OGB Puerto Rico Program, which includes virtual mentoring and expert lectures for medical students in Puerto Rico. She also discussed how the program provided invaluable support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

As with the Hawassa Collaboration, the pandemic has similarly impacted the ability for OGB volunteers to work on the ground in Puerto Rico. Dr. Freiwald said the program has adapted and continues to move forward in providing support to the four medical schools in Puerto Rico.

“Program offerings include a cyber speaker series, which includes biweekly virtual lectures via Zoom to students from all four of the medical schools. We’re also organizing a structured cyber mentor program using Zoom, which pairs physicians with interested medical students,” Dr. Freiwald said.

“How can you get involved?  We’d love you to commit to give a cyber lecture on a topic of your choice, or if you’d like to commit to serve as a cyber mentor to a medical student or resident in the future, we’d love it.”

Finally, as pandemic travel restrictions allow, anyone considering traveling to Puerto Rico as a surgical volunteer can visit the HMARIA, Inc. and Operation Giving Back websites to learn more about the ACS OGB Puerto Rico programs.