Belize, we’ve got your back

Courtesy of Resources for Medical Education and Collaboration

The Durango team performed three operations during its August stay in Belize, including one to correct a 90-degree spinal curvature in a 13-year-old girl. Dr. John Williams, right front, operates on the girl at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

An organization founded four years ago to promote medical education in La Plata County is now performing on an international stage.

A team from Resources for Medical Education and Collaboration made its fourth trip to Belize this summer to provide life-altering spinal care at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in the capital, Belize City.

The weeklong trip produced numerous conferences with Belizians in the medical field, 14 in-clinic patient visits and surgery on three people with spinal abnormalities – a 13-year-old girl, a 54-year-old woman and a 72-year-old man.

The correction of the 13-year-old’s 90-degree spinal curvature was the first scoliosis surgery ever in Belize. It was performed by Dr. Andrew Moulton and Dr. John Williams, with support services from other team members.

Jarrett Self, an operating-room technician at Mercy Regional Medical Center; Caitlyn McCullough, Durango-based executive director of the organization; Mary Dietz, a spinal neuromonitor from Pennsylvania; and Keri George, a registered nurse from Calgary, Alberta, accompanied Moulton and Williams, orthopedic surgeons from New York and Indiana, respectively.

George, working through contacts in Belize, has been the Resources for Medical Education and Collaboration liaison since the beginning and has been on all four trips by the team.

“Although the treatment of scoliosis is very important, another key objective is to train and support local physicians so they can treat adults on their own,” McCullough said in an interview.

“We don’t go there with the goal of taking over the operating room, but to work side by side with our Belizian counterparts,” McCullough said. “The visits also can give us the opportunity to see cases that otherwise we might find only in a textbook.”

Dr. Jim Youssef, a Durango spine surgeon and co-founder of Spine Colorado, who is known internationally for his research, formed Resources for Medical Education and Collaboration.

In a statement to The Durango Herald, Youssef said:

“The Belize Spine Program began as a vision with my colleague Dr. Williams to be able to give back. In the last two years, the vision has grown to a reality,” Youssef said. “We are bringing care, education and resources to our partners in Belize. We’re able to look forward to a future where sustainable advances in spine care can be made in this country.”

The collaboration’s goal is to advance evidence-based medicine and improve health care by supporting education and research locally and globally, McCullough said.

The organization also supports medical internships lasting a semester to a couple of years and continuing education in spinal medicine.

The spinal program works well in Belize because English is the official language, and the country of 300,000 is close to the United States, McCullough said.

Before the group started visiting Belize, patients there with spinal complications had to travel to Mexico or Guatemala, George said.

“We’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg,” George said. “The need in Belize is great, but it takes time to win the confidence to gain the trust of the government and hospital officials.”

The group has focused on cases involving spinal deformities from congenital or degenerative causes, trauma or as a result of cancer, McCullough said.

Belize physicians are eager to learn, McCullough said. They do their best with the training available and at times improvise in emergencies.

NuVasive Spine Foundation, a San Diego provider of spinal implants and instrumentation, donated equipment valued at $85,000 for the most recent trip, McCullough said. The firm also gave $7,600 toward travel.

In-kind donations came from Mercy Regional Medical Center, Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., HemaSource, a provider of transfusion services, and Amedica Corp., which provides spinal implants.

The team wants to increase visits to Belize to three or four a year, McCullough said.

Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, the main referral hospital in Belize, sees 1 million patients a year, McCullough said.

It also hosts the ongoing Rotary-sponsored Belize Children’s Project and visits from other U.S. medical teams, in fields including cardiology, pediatrics and prosthesis/orthotics, McCullough said.

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