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Faith journey leads orthopaedic surgeon to Africa

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Seeing is believing

Five-year-old Jadida Juma crawled on her hands and knees to reach the volunteer doctors who had traveled to Mwanza, Tanzania to provide surgical care to the city’s people. She suffered from a congenital dislocation of both knees and was totally non-ambulatory.

Wendelin W. Schaefer, MD ’64Wendelin W. Schaefer, MD ’64, remembers well this girl who became his goddaughter after his orthopaedic surgical team performed a number of procedures that granted her the ability to walk upright without crutches. He and another doctor later funded schooling for the girl, who is now 18 and would not have been able to attend public school. Dr. Schaefer could not take this personal an interest in every patient treated in the Mwanza program he launched in 1993 through Orthopaedics Overseas, a division of Health Volunteers Overseas. But his clear devotion to the underserved is among the reasons he received the 2009 alumni Humanitarian Award.

An orthopaedic surgeon in the Sheboygan area for many years, Dr. Schaefer saw volunteerism as a way to use his unique skills in Christian service.

“It is part of my faith journey,” he said. “I felt I knew how poor some people of the world live, and they need health and medical help, especially in orthopaedics. I can provide that. This was placed in my path, and I took this up.”

Dr. Schaefer’s first trip with Orthopaedics Overseas was to Umtata, South Africa. It showed him the care that was possible in a developing world situation, he said. The following year, he planned a trip to east Africa and saw the same opportunities in Tanzania, but nothing yet being done. He made his case to Orthopaedics Overseas, which named him program director of a new Mwanza program, which he oversaw for the next 12 years at Bugando Medical Center.

The needs of the population were great. The surgical team frequently treated neglected fractures and neglected dislocations, clubbed feet, bowed legs and knocked knees deformities, and many bone and joint infections.

Dr. Schaefer’s duties were to recruit other orthopaedic surgeons to serve there, see that they were properly credentialed and to assist them with travel. He spent about one month each year in country. Finding equipment to contribute to the program, recruiting volunteers and then managing volunteers were among the key challenges Dr. Schaefer faced in his leadership position.

“During that time with the help of many wonderful orthopaedic volunteers, we brought large amounts of equipment and orthopaedic implants and built a fracture table for children,” he said. “We taught general surgeons how to perform orthopaedic procedures and taught physician assistants, medical students and interns about orthopaedic surgery.”

Dr. Schaefer considers his legacy in the program to be the skilled surgeons who emerged from the program. In addition to the staff general surgeon assigned to Bugando he helped train in orthopaedics, two interns he supported went on to become orthopaedic surgeons. One, Dr. Isadore Ngaymoela, has since returned to Bugando to practice now that Orthopaedics Overseas has terminated its involvement because of the medical center’s stability.

Now living in Nevada, Dr. Schaefer has found a second career in retirement – with Rotary International. He is in his first year as District Chairman for International Service for the organization. In that role he coordinates projects and teaches grant writing in addition to instructing members on international projects.

On a local level, he has been Club Chairman for International Service for seven years, first in Sheboygan and currently in Nevada. He has written matching grants for numerous projects that have improved health care capability in underserved nations throughout Africa by acquiring and delivering medical goods.

And just recently, he was able to secure a $300,000 grant through Rotary’s Health, Hunger and Humanity programs to bring eye care to Kenya’s Rift Valley. This will primarily be used for cataract surgery but also to train eye care professionals and for establishing eye care outreach sites in remote areas of the valley.

“Blindness handicaps two people there,” he said. “The blind are like the elderly and need a child to lead them around. Each procedure through this program restores two people to the roles they should play in life.”

Seeing is believing

A pilot program overseen by Wendelin W. Schaefer, MD ’64, through several Rotary Clubs and his Rotary District has brought sight to the blind in Africa. Sarah, a 61-year-old resident of the Rift Valley in Kenya, had been blind for about six years. Agnes, 5, held the responsibility of being Sarah’s sighted guardian. Sarah was a patient in the pilot program for the Rift Valley Eye Care project that recently earned a $300,000 Rotary International grant, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Schaefer, enabling such care to continue in this underserved area.

Sarah and Agnes prior to Sarah’s surgery.
Sarah and Agnes prior to Sarah’s surgery.
After her surgery, Sarah can see, and Agnes
After her surgery, Sarah can see, and Agnes
was able to play with other children.

 Dr. Schaefer, center, is pictured with a patient. Also with Dr. Schaefer are Richard McGonnelland and Sebastian Alix, volunteers from the host Rotary Club of Naivasha.

Dr. Schaefer, center, is pictured with a patient he helped while doing humanitarian work in the Rift Valley of Kenya. The patient had a broken femur repaired with a SIGN rod orthopaedic implant and interlocking screws, all purchased by Dr. Schaefer’s Rotary club, Tahoe Incline Rotary Club. Also with Dr. Schaefer are Richard McGonnelland and Sebastian Alix, volunteers from the host Rotary Club of Naivasha.

View the entire summer 2009 issue of Alumni News. (opens as a pdf)

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