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The Rewards of a Medical Mission

Editor’s Note: Dr. Burak Ozgur is chief of service for the Neurosurgical Spine Program at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, featured in the Jan. 2 print edition of the Business Journal. The following excerpts, detailing his experiences treating patients in Palestine, are from his recently published book, “Grabbing Life by the Horns—and other patient stories of a neurosurgeon.” The Business Journal’s Custom Content section on Healthcare begins on page 35.

I examined a Palestinian woman who lived with a leg that hurt so much for so long, that she asked me, “Can you just cut off my leg? It’s too painful.”

I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. After examination, I found a possible spinal cause and performed a surgery on her. The next day, her hospital room was full of her family celebrating with music and candy. She told me it was like a miracle had happened.

These experiences make my medical mission trips worthwhile by helping patients who may otherwise go on to continue suffering without proper medical care.
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I was born and raised in Glendale, graduated from the University of California, Irvine, and then earned my doctorate at the University of Vermont. I completed my spine fellowship at the University of California, San Diego. I am the son of Turkish immigrants and followed the path of my father, who is also a neurosurgeon.

I always had a desire to help those less fortunate around the world through a medical mission. A friend recommended a non-profit called the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. PCRF organizes physicians and their teams from throughout the U.S. and internationally as well who all volunteer to serve.

In 2021, this non-profit conducted 834 surgeries on children in Middle East refugee camps, an astounding number considering the limitations of COVID-19.

I vetted the group to make sure it’s legitimate. I found its work wasn’t religious or political. Rather, it was an American self-funded group that focused on people who are poor or refugees, some living in war torn areas without access to medical care.

Thus far, I’ve been on four missions to the West Bank over the past several years with plans for a fifth trip this coming November. The nonprofit let me form my own team. I would usually bring a PA, medical students, or residents to join and help. Sometimes my brother, Omar Ozgur, who is also a physician, (an oculoplastic surgeon) would accompany us as well providing surgeries to patients with eye or facial injuries.

On my first trip, I was nervous about safety. We were scrutinized and questioned on our way there. However, we were always met with incredibly gracious hospitality, warmth, and gratitude. Many people ask us why we go. I’d answer, “We go because there is a great need for quality medical care and services that the poor and suffering don’t have access to there. If we didn’t go, who would?”
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Before our arrival in Palestine, volunteers would visit West Bank communities to find and prepare those patients who had spinal problems. On the first day of our mission, usually a Sunday, we’d see about 100 patients and then due to limited time and resources, we would try and figure out how to provide the greatest number of surgeries safely over the next several days.

For the next four days, we would typically perform three to four surgeries a day, limited only by a lack of supplies or the ability to sterilize equipment.

These patients live with severe spinal problems, terrible neck or back pain, and often times pain, numbness, or tingling running down their arms or legs. We can’t help everyone but we try our best. Often times these are problems that we treat so commonly here in the U.S. with a bounty of resources. However, there are so many people in the West Bank and Gaza who are struggling for safety, shelter, and clean water. Therefore, unfortunately their healthcare becomes a lower priority given their circumstances.

It’s not about religion or politics. These innocent people are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
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We’d teach local physicians and nurses how to do the more common procedures and to continue to take care of the patients when we left.

We developed friendships where even now they’ll email me with questions about complicated cases.

In the U.S. we often throw away equipment after one usage. The Palestinians have to reuse a lot of equipment, sometimes with dull blades or expired medications because that’s all they have.

Every trip, we’d bring equipment that we could gather donated. I have patients in the Newport Beach area who have heard about my trips and made donations to the charity.

We believe the best way to improve the infrastructure is engage more local physicians through education and a conference. So, through the charity, many other physicians throughout the U.S., and local physicians and organizations in Palestine, we put together a conference in 2022 which was very well attended. More than 200 people for the opening night and then so many other volunteer surgeons from the U.S. joined local physicians through lectures and forums the next day. Hopefully, this will become an annual conference in the region to help more.
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To come from a place like Hoag Hospital where we have world class facilities and great resources, going to West Bank hospitals that often lacks basic equipment is challenging, particularly for performing spine surgeries.

We’d do as many surgeries as we safely can, but obviously there are some cases where the surgical requirements are too complex and require a more sophisticated hospital environment. In some of these cases, I can only recommend more conservative treatment options, but sometimes the charity I work with is able to bring a patient who has more complex issues to the United States.

For example, a 14-year-old girl named Sarah was suffering from a debilitating spinal condition that, sadly, could not be repaired due to the limited resources in Palestine. It bothered me so much that I approached Hoag, which agreed to let us perform the surgery free of charge. The entire medical staff volunteered for this surgery.

The charity paid to have Sarah and her mother Nabila (names have been changed to respect privacy) flown to Southern California. We arranged for them to stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Orange.

Although Sarah’s surgery was a complicated case, it went well, and she did amazing. In fact, she only had to stay in the hospital for 24 hours. Within a week of Sarah’s surgery, word had spread about her story, and several people in the area expressed an interest in wanting to help her family out.

As soon as it was safe to do so, members of the community took Sarah and her mother to Disneyland, to the beach, and sight-seeing in Southern California. Sarah continued to improve and had no difficulty participating in these fun adventures. To me, it was a wonderful example of community collaboration and the kindness of the human spirit.

We had them stay for about a month, so we could make sure Sarah’s wounds were healing appropriately. Every time I saw Sarah and Nabila, they seemed to be happy and smiling.

About a year after they’d returned home, they sent me a video where Sarah and her mom said hello and thanked me and everyone else who had helped them. I heard recently that she is now in nursing school to help others.

Helping people on these medical missions is so incredibly rewarding. It’s an example of how the Orange County medical community is making a difference in places around the world that need our help.

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