success stories

Posted May 18, 2004

A Unique Success Story in Lay Missionary Outreach to Women
Bringing Greater Dignity to Women’s Health in Far Way Countries

Malibu Catholic physician goes around world
to improve women's health

By Paula Doyle
Catholic News Service

Dr. Leo Lagasse has a prescription for Third World nation building: improve the health care of women.

Eight years ago, the physician, a member of Our Lady of Malibu Parish, co-founded Medicine for Humanity with Dr. Robert Greenburg to advance the state of women's health in developing countries.

Lagasse is a surgeon and a specialist in gynecologic cancer, known as a gynoncologist, at Cedars-Sinai and Kaiser hospitals in Los Angeles. He believes that one of the most effective ways to improve any society is to help its women.

Sharing his conviction are more than 100 medical professionals from prestigious teaching hospitals in the United States who have volunteered on Medicine for Humanity trips to 16 nations.

"We are dedicated to the elimination of social, economic and cultural barriers to women's health care," said Lagasse. He recently returned from a mission trip to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya where he operated on patients and worked alongside local surgeons.

"Improving the health of women advances the welfare of children, the family, the community and the nation," he added in an interview with The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In contrast to medical organizations that primarily focus on programs for disease prevention and pain relief, Medicine for Humanity wants to have an immediate impact on women's health by creating programs to reduce the death rate from cervical cancer and from injuries to organs suffered during childbirth.

"Three-quarters of all women with the disease (cervical cancer) live in developing countries," said Lagasse.

Currently, he said, screening programs in such countries have had little or no effect on mortality, so for those who contract the disease a diagnosis is a death sentence.

"These women do not have to die! Even patients who are in an advanced stage of the disease have the chance of being cured. This empowers women, places value on their lives and acknowledges their importance to their families and communities," said Lagasse.

During a trip to East Africa last January, the Medicine for Humanity team focused on repairing holes, or fistulas, in women's bladders; their condition was the result of a difficult childbirth. One patient whose fistula was successfully repaired had been injured during a prolonged six-day labor.

Injuries related to childbirth are not uncommon for women in a region where people lack sufficient access to medical care and where it can take more than a day to travel to the nearest hospital.

Lagasse wants to help build a medical school in Eritrea, a predominantly Muslim country on the shores of the Red Sea. He is convinced that without good medical care the quality of life in underdeveloped countries simply won't improve. Education and training of members of the local medical community are always top priorities on the two-week medical mission trips.

Since 1995, Medicine for Humanity teams have worked in the Philippines, South Africa, Mexico, Malawi, Mongolia, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Poland, Croatia, Costa Rica, Panama, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya. Teams also have been to American Indian reservations in Arizona and South Dakota.

"It's been very inspirational for the participants," said Lagasse. "Nobody comes back without being moved."

Dr. Kristin Keefe, 42, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, said volunteering for Medicine for Humanity has "truly changed my life."

"Doing what we're doing is like touching the hand of God," said Keefe. She pays her airfare, which averages $2,000 per trip, with frequent flyer miles; she accumulates the miles by charging purchases on her credit cards.

Keefe flew to Bangladesh with Medicine for Humanity last October and was to travel to Africa with the group in June.

"We're not only helping to improve women's health care, participants come back and see how fortunate we are (in this country)," she said. "So many people have nothing" in the countries they visit, she added.

"Over there, you have to learn to function in battlefield conditions," said Keefe. For example, on the recent Bangladesh trip, surgeons had to sew up organs by hand because medical staples were unavailable. Gloves and needles are sterilized and reused for surgery.

Dr. Jill Satorie, 30, an OB-GYN resident at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, went with the organization to Eritrea in January.

"It was a great thrill to work with top-notch surgeons in such a warm, appreciative environment," said Satorie. She was encouraged to go on the trip by Dr. Gautam Chaudhuri, professor and chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at UCLA's School of Medicine.

Drs. Chaudhuri and Satorie hope to set up a permanent rotation for residents to participate in Medicine for Humanity missions beginning this September.

"Medicine for Humanity makes a great impact on the people it serves," said Satorie, who attends St. Monica Church in Santa Monica. "The patients see people from the U.S. caring for them, performing complex surgeries. Many lives could well have been saved by those surgeries."