Volunteer Local Doctors Give Free Doses of Care
by Yaffi Spodek
Just four days after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Dr. Mitchell Schuster, a family practitioner in Boca Raton, was on the ground in Port-au-Prince tending to hundreds of victims. His volunteer disaster relief team treated infected and amputated limbs; administered IVs, tetanus shots and antibiotics; and created splints and casts for the wounded.
“We were the first medical team on the scene,” he recalled. “We helped carry in new patients found in the rubble, provided food and water for those being treated, and distributed toys and clothing to the children and families who had lost everything.”
Dr. Schuster is no stranger to this kind of trauma, and his experience in Haiti is one of dozens of trips he’s made to numerous underdeveloped countries over the years, including the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Niger. He’s also in good company among a sizable group of Jewish healthcare providers in South Palm Beach County who selflessly provide pro-bono services through a variety of charitable organizations to treat patients both locally and abroad who cannot afford to pay for care. For many, the intrinsic Jewish value of giving back to the community is a strong part of their motivation, and the reward of seeing a patient’s grateful smile is infinitely more valuable than any monetary compensation.
In 2005, Dr. Schuster founded the Bicol Clinic Foundation (BCF), named after the Bicol region of the Philippines, the place where he earned his medical degree and which later inspired him to devote much of his time and services to the destitute local population. BCF – which will soon be celebrating its 10th anniversary – established a permanent outpatient clinic in the Philippines, and dispatches medical personnel to provide checkups, primary care and surgeries to patients in Nepal and Haiti as well. BCF also operates a disaster relief fund to support victims of natural disasters abroad and sends food and supplies to local orphanages there.
“Our goal is to give these people a chance at an education, improved living conditions and good health,” explained Dr. Schuster. “These are some of the world’s poorest areas and patients will often walk for miles up mountain paths to reach our clinic.”
Dr. Schuster started out as an artist and writer before pursuing his passion in medicine, and those two early disciplines helped prepare him for his medical career. “It’s all about finding the balance between your creative side and a human desire to help others,” he said. “My goal is to inspire young students and doctors – to bring back that sense of enthusiasm when treating patients and to show others how rewarding the field of healthcare can be.”
From treating children with tuberculosis and infectious parasites in outdoor tent cities, to arranging and sponsoring major surgeries in local hospitals, BCF’s work spans the gamut and provides a unique hands-on learning opportunity for its volunteers. Dr. Schuster recruits doctors and medical students – from Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University and other schools across the region and nation – to accompany him, and he enjoys giving them real-life medical training that they likely wouldn’t receive elsewhere.
“My father was a believer in the great sage Maimonides who was a philosopher and a physician, and my father believed in the Jewish act of giving back through education. I strive to be a living example of that philosophy,” he explained. “The students learn a lot about triage, allocating limited medical resources, facing ethical dilemmas of deciding which person to treat and the cold reality of having to say ‘no’ to a patient.”
Though Dr. Schuster considers BCF “a smaller boutique charity, helping one village at a time,” the organization has accomplished an incredible amount since its inception, treating nearly 30,000 patients, dispatching 150 volunteers and raising over $2 million. One of his primary goals is to have BCF’s missions become accredited through FAU and incorporated into the medical school’s fourth-year clinical rotations so he can bring more aspiring doctors overseas. “In addition to the students receiving this amazing hands-on medical experience, I also want the Nepalese doctors teaching them as part of the curriculum,” he said. “Most of medicine is universal, but treating patients in a third world country is often different.”
Practicing medicine in any foreign country comes with its own set of unique challenges, whether it’s a language barrier or a cultural disparity. Every year, Dr. Annie Friedman of Big Tooth Boca gets a temporary permit to provide free dental services to needy patients in Israel. Through Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI), she spends one week a year in the organization’s Jerusalem clinic, treating patients between the ages of 4 and 26 who are unable to afford care, many of whom have never before been to a dentist.
She later recruited her husband, fellow dentist Dr. Bob Spoont to join her, and the duo has turned their volunteer trips into an annual tradition. Their patients are an ethnic melting pot of different religions and backgrounds, including Israelis, Ethiopians and Arabs, which only enhances the experience.
“The culture and diversity of the patients, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is amazing,” said Dr. Spoont. “It’s just a nice feeling, knowing that you’re all on the same side and there for a common reason.”
While Dr. Spoont mostly treats the older patients, Dr. Friedman often works with young children who may feel anxious and are therefore more difficult to treat; however, her success stories are memorable.
“Once I worked on an Israeli-Palestinian child who had never allowed a dentist to treat her before, and her parents were so grateful that they came to the clinic the next day with a full homemade meal of pita, falafel and hummus for me,” she recounted. “The clinic welcomes people of all backgrounds and we all work together.”
Though Dr. Friedman plans to retire soon from her practice in Boca, she intends to keep her license current so she can continue to volunteer with DVI. “We used to volunteer locally in Florida but we would rather spend our energies in Israel,” she added. “We just love being there and helping out because it’s so rewarding.”
Their good work extends beyond the dental services. Dr. Friedman and Dr. Spoont donate dental instruments and supplies to the DVI clinic, and they also provided funding for the clinic to purchase nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, for its patients.
A little closer to home, Dr. Henry Lennon performs free oral surgery – including extractions, implants and pathologies – for Holocaust survivors, through Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services’ program called DASH: Dental Assistance for Survivors of the Holocaust. Though Dr. Lennon has been providing free services to a variety of needy people over the years, the DASH patients are the ones with whom he shares the strongest connection.
“For me, it’s personal – my parents were Holocaust survivors and I was born in a displaced persons camp after the war,” he said. “I’m treating these survivors whose teeth have been affected by malnutrition or they lost a lot of teeth because of what they went through, and many of them were never taught how to properly care for their teeth. There aren’t many survivors left, and treating them is a mitzvah and such a meaningful way for me to give back.”
Other dentists and doctors, many of whom are retired, devote their time to volunteer on a weekly basis and see hundreds of patients each year, all under one roof. The Caridad Center in Boynton Beach provides free medical, dental and vision care (in addition to chronic disease prevention, breast care and mental health programs) to 26,000 patients a year who are poor or uninsured, thanks to a team of 250 healthcare providers who donate $2.6 million in services annually. An expansion is underway that will allow Caridad – the largest free clinic in Florida – to see an additional 12,000 patients annually.
Dr. Jim Abramowitz, a retired dentist from Boca, has been volunteering at Caridad three days a week for the last five years, often seeing tens of patients in a day. He feels gratified knowing that he helped alleviate a patient’s pain, and that whether he’s working on fillings, extractions, prosthetics or dentures, he is making a real difference in their lives.
“I once treated a woman who was a victim of domestic abuse and was missing her front teeth,” he said. “I gave her new teeth and restored her self-esteem. She was so appreciative and I was so happy I was able to help."
That desire to help others was instilled in Dr. Abramowitz from a young age. “Growing up, my parents were always giving tzedaka, and that inspired me to give back in my own way,” he said.
For Dr. Richard Gerstein, a retired internist with specialties in sports medicine and geriatrics, part of his motivation for volunteering at Caridad is giving back to the next generation. Two afternoons a week, he brings medical students from FAU to Caridad, where they can receive unique hands-on training.
“It’s about giving back, which is part of the Jewish culture, and it allows me to keep my hand in medicine,” said Dr. Gerstein, who practiced medicine for 48 years before retiring. “It’s also very rewarding to teach these medical students, who represent the next generation. It’s incredible to see them experience something for the first time, and makes us really think about what we’re doing, from a medical perspective.”
Caridad also refers patients to outside doctors and specialists, which allows providers who work full-time and can’t volunteer on a regular basis to contribute as well. For the last few years, Eye Associates of Boca Raton has hosted Gift of Sight, an annual one-day event that provides free eye surgeries to close to two dozen patients. From cataract surgeries, to corneal transplants and glaucoma procedures, the Caridad doctors select the most vision-impaired patients to receive these life-changing services.
The program was initiated by Dr. Howard Goldman, an ophthalmologist at Eye Associates, who used to travel abroad to perform procedures but soon realized there was an abundance of local people in need as well. “In 1980, we started a Florida chapter of Surgical Eye Expeditions and went on missions to do eye surgeries in Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and Panama,” he said. “It became difficult to transport supplies and organize teams to travel there, and my wife thought I was too old to be schlepping through jungles, so I redirected my volunteer efforts to our own community.”
This past November marked the 10th year that Eye Associates of Boca Raton sponsored the event, which is usually held a few days before Thanksgiving and has given the precious gift of sight to 250 people so far. This year, 23 patients were treated, receiving about $75,000 worth of free vision services.
“We feel it’s a very worthwhile cause and I hope to continue contributing to it for a long time,” said Dr. Goldman. “Sight is a tremendous asset and to restore someone’s sight is to give them the ability to be independent and capable caregivers again. Ophthalmology is a miraculous field because you are able to see the amazing impact of your work right away.”