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Superheroes in Scrubs: Luke Healy, MD volunteers in Zimbabwe for fifth mission with Operation of Hope

Author: Dayna Stroik

July 27, 2018
Superheroes in Scrubs: Luke Healy, MD, flies to Zimbabwe for fifth mission with Operation of Hope

Every day, health care providers at St. Francis aim to positively change the lives of our patients. From those that arrive at our Emergency Department, to those receiving care after a pre-scheduled surgical service – we provide the care they need to heal and the tools they need to stay healthy.

Thankfully, at St. Francis, we have the resources and opportunity to care for everyone that comes through our doors. But, what if we didn't?

What if we didn't have enough providers, knowledge or technology to help make lives better?

In some parts of the world, the unavailability of resources impacts the care patients receive. Whether it's due to lack of training, providers or equipment, certain levels of care are inaccessible, leaving even small children without surgical procedures that are considered routine in places like the United States.

This is where modern-day super heroes step in.

Or, in this case, fly in.

One of these heroes is St. Francis Emergency Department doctor, Luke Healy. In May, he boarded a flight for a six-day volunteer trip to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, alongside doctors and nurses from across the United States and Canada, with a single shared mission: Operation of Hope.

Operation of Hope

Dr. Luke Healy and Dr. John Paschen pacu planningOperation of Hope is a non-profit organization that works with health care providers around the world to perform life-changing surgeries in developing countries. Operation of Hope's surgeons volunteer to perform reconstructive surgery free of charge to children with congenital or acquired facial deformities or injuries, and to burn victims of all ages.

This trip was Dr. Healy's fifth mission with Operation of Hope.

"I've enjoyed being able to help in parts of the world where they don't have access to the resources that we take for granted in the United States. The patients we care for, the providers I work with and these mission trips in general are all very special to me," reflected Healy.

Overwhelmed Infrastructure

Mpilo medical ward Built in the 1950s, Mpilo Central Hospital originally catered to a population of 250,000 people. However, in 2018, the hospital is vastly overwhelmed, serving more than one million people from the surrounding communities, routing already-scarce resources and tools to more life-threatening conditions and rendering debilitating, yet survivable, deformities to the wayside.

To help remedy the situation, Mpilo generously allowed the Operation of Hope team to use two operating theaters, a medicine ward and an autoclave for sterilizing instruments brought over by the volunteers.

"At the beginning of each mission, we are reminded to 'pack our flexibility,'" explained Healy. The reminder came in handy, because though some of the hospital's machines were modern, others were in need of updates. According to Healy, "The hospital provided two anesthesia machines, but one was on the fritz and only able to deliver certain anesthetics."

OR unpackingThe hospital's infrastructure and features varied throughout, creating the need for some resourcefulness from the surgeons.

"The operating room (OR) lights in one room were nice and bright, but in the other room, the surgeon relied on a head lamp," described Healy. "The post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) took a fair bit of preparation to come to fruition. It started out as an empty room with some oxygen pipes, but with enough airway supplies and portable monitors, we made it work and kept the recovering patients safe and comfortable."

Changing Lives

bilateral lip pre and postUpon patients' arrival to Mpilo Central Hospital, Healy and his fellow providers began screening individuals who traveled from all parts of the country – many in search of surgical care for their children's cleft lips and palates. "We would see kids from six or seven months old, up to school age, to repair cleft lips and palates," said Healy. "But, we also had quite a few patients with a large variety of other ailments looking for help through Operation of Hope's volunteers."

On surgery days, the Operation of Hope providers worked alongside Mpilo staff. Mpilo scrub techs and OR nurses helped in the OR, and Mpilo ward nurses helped care for the patients day and night.

Dr. Schraag in OR"Occasionally some of the Mpilo doctors would join us in the OR for training and experience, or to discuss a case that would need detailed follow-up," explained Healy. "In one case, our surgeon, Christiaan Schrag, MD, performed the first stage of rebuilding a man's nose. He had lost his nose in a car crash last year and Dr. Schrag worked for several hours alongside one of the Mpilo doctors to begin his nasal reconstruction. The man will need additional procedures down the road and ensuring good follow-up care is essential. This was one of our longer cases – most of our cases were less complex. We had about five or six patients per day in each of our two operating rooms. Over the course of six days, we cared for nearly 60 patients."

Finding Joy

Nurse Brenna with post-op cutie"It was so rewarding to care for Zimbabwe's next generation, and to contribute to their ability to live comfortable lives, free of facial deformities," said Healy. "We become health care providers to tend to various patient needs, but when we're volunteering and it's a child we're helping, it's that much more meaningful."

In addition to the large number of children with cleft palates and lips, the team at Operation of Hope also tended to patients with debilitating burn scars. One patient, a woman in her 20s, was badly burned in a house fire five years earlier and couldn't move her neck or close her mouth due to the resulting scar. The Operation of Hope team surgically released her scar and, after five years, she could finally close her mouth and move her neck freely.

"The opportunity to watch this young woman see her smile for the first time in five years was one of the best moments on this mission," said Dr. Healy.


Luke Healy, MD has been an emergency medicine doctor at St. Francis Regional Medical Center for six years. A part of Suburban Emergency Associates, he is residency-trained and board certified in Emergency Care. Healy has nearly 10 years of clinical experience.