Monday, May 28, 2018
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Surgeon travels the globe to help poor


Medical Mission Hall of Fame president Larry Conway, left, and 2005 inductee Dr. Glenn Geelhoed stand beside the honorees' plaques in the Center for Creative Education at the University of Toledo Health Science Campus.


Dr. Glenn Geelhoed, a 2005 inductee in the Medical Mission Hall of Fame, is a surgeon and professor at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington who devotes the majority of his efforts to serving people in Third World countries.

Returning to Toledo this week to attend the MMHOF events, Dr. Geelhoed said he hopes the hall will shine a light on the tremendous need for health care in impoverished nations.

"This hall is supposed to be a dynamic legacy," he said. "It's not a memorial. It's not a mausoleum of sorts. It's got to be something that is active and moving forward."

The spry and amiable 66-year-old surgeon has been to more than 150 nations but has lost track of the number of medical mission trips he's taken.

"I haven't kept a count but there must be someone tallying the beans," he said with a laugh.

Larry Conway, director of the hall of fame, said "more than 200" trips would be a conservative estimate for Dr. Geelhoed, who flew into Toledo from Africa, where he provided health care in Sudan and Kenya.

Prior to that, he was performing surgeries, mostly thyroidectomies, in remote areas of the Philippines, he said.

Dr. Geelhoed's passion for helping the poor began when he was in medical school at the University of Michigan.

"I went when I was a student, as a senior, and I just never stopped," he said, adding that he has been taking medical students with him on the mission trips for 42 years.

"It has been even more rewarding as time has gone on because I've been able to do more, and I see also what it has done to transform the lives of the people that go - not just those who receive the help," he said.

"That's why I say a freshman medical student is going to make some improvement. They're going to see immediate change and they're going to see something that's tangible right from their efforts," Dr. Geelhoed said.

The need for health care in the Third World is "almost unlimited," Dr. Geelhoed said.

In the United States, the quality of medical care is so high that he feels he could never make much of a dent in the overall standard of living. But in Sudan, Chad, the Philippines, and other areas with extreme poverty, living conditions are medieval or worse and any medical care he provides will produce noticeable results.

He said the top five causes of death globally are not the ones that first come to mind for most Americans.

Most people probably start off with heart, cancer, stroke, but you have to be wealthy to afford that sort of illness, Dr. Geeohoed said. So what are the number 1 through 5? No. 1 is diarrhea. No. 2 is acute respiratory. No. 3 is malaria. No. 4 is malnutrition. No. 5 is measles, of all things. And none of those five need any kind of research and can all be cured.

He believes that using his medical skills and devoting so much of his time to helping the world s neediest people is a moral and spiritual obligation.

There s no other way to describe that, he said. And I ve taken people from all different belief systems on these trips and every one of them described it as a profound spiritual experience.

No matter what one s religious, political, ethnic, or economic background, using one s abilities to help someone in dire need is still the best thing one person can do for another, Dr. Geelhoed said.

During his time in Sudan s Nuba Mountains last year, the doctor crossed paths with Aaron Shapiro, a 24-year-old Perrysburg man who was working for Samaritan s Purse, the Christian relief organization headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham. Mr. Shapiro came down with a case of malaria and Dr. Geelhoed was the one who treated him.

The surgeon said he is often asked if he s been in danger during his missions, but aside from having been strafed once in Sudan he said it s the safety of others, particularly the medical students who accompany him, that concerns him the most.

He was in Kenya, normally one of Africa s more stable countries, when violence suddenly erupted in January.

Everything was in flames and I told my students this may sound strange but I m trying to get you into Sudan where you ll be safe, Dr. Geelhoed said.

The people he helps never ask him about his affiliations or background, he said.

One of the wonderful things about the missions that I do is that during all the time I ve been in and out of these countries, nobody has ever asked me which side are you on or what stripe do you wear or are you a red stater or a blue stater or a Muslim Sunni or Shiite, he said.

When planning a mission trip to Rwanda, he said a local worker there was planning to sort out the patients and put the Methodists ahead of the others.

I said, For 20 years, you ve been trying to tell me the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi and I m pretty slow on the uptake and I still don t get it. But I ll be absolutely honest with you: I can t tell a Methodist from a Muslim at 20 paces and I m going to have to see em all, Dr. Geelhoed said.

He said he ll never run out of patients.

I work with the bottom billion, he said, referring to the world s poorest people. I have the largest growth industry on Earth. I operate on anyone anywhere so long as they cannot pay. And no one is competing for my clientele.

David Yonke

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