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Stanford Report, October 16, 2002

Greco takes a round of Stanford Hospital residents on a volunteer trip to Haiti


An area of extreme poverty, limited resources and political and social disarray doesn’t sound like the ideal place to practice medicine. But for Ralph Greco, MD, Haiti is an amazing place to work.

Now Greco and a group of four Stanford residents and students have traveled to the Western hemisphere’s poorest country to provide medical care to local residents. The group left last Thursday to spend one week at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, a rural hospital in Haiti.

Ralph Greco has made it a tradition to take Stanford Hospital residents on a week of volunteering in one of the poorest corners of the world. PHOTO COURTESY OF RALPH GRECO

"This is an opportunity for us to make a difference," said Greco, who has been making working visits to the Haitian hospital for more than 25 years. "In the United States, few people can say that they do what no one else can do. In Haiti, though, the work we do can’t be duplicated by anyone else — we’re the only ones who can help."

Haiti is a country with extremely limited resources and a dire health care situation. The country’s infant mortality in 2000 was 86 per 1,000 live births — more than 10 times higher than in the United States — and the current life expectancy is 57 years. Greco said the health-care situation has improved because of the hospital, which opened in 1956 and now depends on international donations and the work of visiting physicians.

Greco, chief of general surgery and the Johnson & Johnson Professor of Surgery, began organizing trips to Haiti for surgical residents two years ago.

Eight Stanford residents so far have made the trip and the stories swirling around the halls have prompted others to sign on.

"I think Dr. Greco’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on me and everyone in the surgical program," said Peter Peng, a fourth-year medical student on the trip who first heard about Haiti during a grand rounds presentation. "I’ve noticed that residents who have already been to Haiti are always the first to volunteer to go back."

This doesn’t surprise Greco, who fell in love with the country during his first visit as a Yale surgical resident in the 1970s. "It was the most thrilling thing — the most exotic thing — I’d ever done," he said. "It instilled me with a sense of confidence in my abilities."

Greco considers the learning experience one of the most rewarding part of the trip for trainees. During their time there, trainees not only work without the technological advances of modern hospitals but also pitch in on all areas of medical care. Greco recently shared a story of his first visit to the hospital, when he was told upon arrival to deliver a breach baby. ("I told them I was a surgeon, not an obstetrician," he recalled. "They told me, ‘You’re an OB now!’ ")

This type of environment, Greco said, forces physicians to rely on their knowledge, resourcefulness and instinct to treat patients.

"It allows trainees to hone their diagnostic skills and develop clinical skills," Greco commented. "The trainees who come here learn not only to think out of the box but to trust their judgment."

Greco hopes to develop a surgical rotation that would send four to six Stanford residents a year to train for a month in Haiti. The elective rotation would include Hôpital Albert Schweitzer as an option.

As for Peng, he also hopes to extend his Haiti experience beyond his week there. He has applied for an Arts and Humanities Medical Scholars Grant through the medical school, and he plans to further study residents’ experience in Haiti, Haiti’s medical system and Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, which has emerged as an international model for providing health care services in developing countries.

A frequent traveler to Cuba is honored for surgical work and an award-winning film (5/29/02)

Medical center team needs help exporting hope at 11,000 feet (3/20/02)