Living the Mission

Ken Edwards, M.D., ’80, P12 (right), consults with colleagues during one of his trips to Bolivia with Solidarity Bridge.

A Surgeon’s Service: Ken Edwards, M.D., ’80 P12 works for social justice and healing in Bolivia

By Debra Steilen

Surgeons are often portrayed as Type A personalities. Medical professionals who take command. Doctors who provide hope when life looks bleak.

And so it was for Ken Edwards, M.D., ’80 P12, an orthopedic surgeon in St. Joseph, Mich., and dad to Jordan ’12. Then one Sunday he heard a visiting priest talk about Solidarity Bridge, a Chicago-based organization that works to heal and empower the poor. The words pierced Edwards’ heart, for he had been thinking about his service to others for some time. The doctor contacted Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa, the organization’s executive director, to see about participating in a medical mission.

“Medical professionals are drawn to Solidarity Bridge because they can practice medicine in a pure way,” Hinojosa says. “But it takes a very special person to come on a mission with us. Surgeons, in particular, need to possess a certain degree of humility, generosity of spirit and willingness to connect with colleagues and counterparts in Bolivia.”

Within months of that first conversation with Hinojosa, Edwards found himself in one of the poorest countries in South America. A devastating 70 percent of Bolivians live in deep poverty, struggling to find medical care. “It’s a country without a safety net,” Edwards says.

There in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, Edwards and the other volunteers from Solidarity Bridge (medical professionals, translators and staff) performed 2,317 surgeries, evaluated 54,365 patients and delivered more than $17.5 million of medical equipment, supplies and medications. All in less than two weeks.

"I extend myself beyond my comfort zone to give service to others."

But, along with the triumphs, Edwards saw heartbreaking cases that the international team of doctors could not help. Not due to lack of skill or willingness, but because specialized equipment was in short supply. He recalls a young boy whose arms were amputated following a terrible car accident, one at the shoulder and the other below the elbow. Without the right kind of artificial limbs, there was no direct way for Edwards to help the child regain the use of his arms. He remembers seeing a gentleman lying in a hospital bed who had broken his upper thigh bone. This patient’s medical care was limited to traction provided by foam boots and a pair of two-liter Pepsi bottles filled with water.

 “The Bolivians are great surgeons and great colleagues in the truest sense of the word,” Edwards says. “But they don’t have access to all the technological advances we have here. Still, they take care of problems that would humble the best surgeons in the U.S. with equipment that’s pretty arcane. It’s really humbling to watch them do surgery with Black & Decker drills attached to extension cords.”

At Hinojosa’s urging, Edwards is designing a specialized medical mission to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz with equipment donated by Stryker Corp. In October 2011 he’ll lead a surgical team doing total knee replacements—complicated, expensive surgeries that will help disabled Bolivians return to self-sufficiency because they can go back to work. Edwards says his team will follow the patients longitudinally to see how such surgeries benefit the communities overall.

“I’ve got this dream that if I can get this going, and it works, I can contact orthopedic surgeons who attended Holy Cross and convince them to participate,” Edwards says.

When asked where his willingness to serve others started, Edwards credits his student days at Holy Cross. But he really didn’t grasp what the late Rev. Joseph J. LaBran, S.J., ’38, Hon. ’01, longtime teacher, chaplain and director of the Spiritual Exercises, was trying to teach him about Jesuit spirituality until he got older. “Now I understand the absolute obligation to serve others,” Edwards says. “I enjoy a life full of tremendous blessings. I have good skills in orthopedic surgery. If I can bring that to a larger community, that’s the service I’m called to give.”