One Chicago doctor takes his compassion and skills south of the border
In his desk at Shriners Children’s Hospital Chicago, Peter Smith, MD, keeps a drawing that a child in Colombia made for him. The drawing shows a doctor in scrubs with angel wings on his back. The drawing humbles Smith and reminds him of why he does what he does.
Twice a year, Smith, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, travels to Colombia with a team of specialists. At the Fundación Hospital San José, in the historic town of Buga, Colombia, they operate on children who have club feet, congenital hip dislocations, and other congenital and acquired orthopedic conditions.
Some families arrive from the big, bustling city of Cali nearby. Others travel nearly a full day by boat and bus from all over Colombia, some from the Andes Mountains or Amazon. They make the journey because they know that medical professionals visiting from the United States offer treatment for children’s orthopedic challenges free of charge.
A local charity, Casa de Colombia, used to send patients to Shriners Children’s Chicago. Then, in 1992, the hospital invited Shriners’ orthopedic surgeons to visit. Smith and a team of doctors and nurses accepted the invitation.
“I have a hard time saying no, but who knew that it would last more than 30 years?” says Smith, president of the mission.
The volunteers and the hospital have evolved significantly since that first small- scale visit. “The hospital was barebones and practically bankrupt. The staff was not being paid,” Smith says. Now, though, he adds, “We collaborate a lot with local doctors, and the hospital is well equipped with operating room lights, X-ray machines, and a gait lab we built that lets us evaluate a child’s walking pattern.”
Each mission consists of 18 to 20 medical professionals from all over the U.S. The team always includes two residents-in-training and a volunteer who offers medical tool sharpening to local physicians, Smith says.
Casa de Colombia covers hotel and meal expenses for the volunteers. The organization arranges the trip logistics and also offers housing and social services for families who have to remain in Buga for follow-up care from local orthopedists.
During their five-day stay, the team sees up to 80 children in clinic and performs about 40 surgeries. Smith says one of his most challenging cases involved a boy born with his fingers fused together and his hands behind his back. The team doctors performed multiple surgeries over several years to separate the boy’s fingers from each other and to correct his shoulder positioning so that he could hold his hands in front of him.
Some of the doctors also lecture at a nearby university, to share their techniques with their Colombian colleagues. Smith talks about his work treating club feet and osteogenesis imperfecta, an inherited disorder which causes children to have brittle bones that break easily.
While the doctors and nurses tend to get the credit, Smith is quick to point out families’ important contributions. “They are the heroes who have the burden of keeping their children going,” he says. Smith is also especially affected by the young patients. “They have a light in their eyes and like to play the way all children do,” he says. “The children bring us joy.”
Above photo: Peter Smith, MD, and a team of volunteer medical workers operate on children in Colombia.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue.