Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh remembers the day he got the call. When he picked up the phone, he heard, “Get your butt down here because we are totally overwhelmed.”
The call came from a fellow physician in Haiti where the disastrous 2010 earthquake had just struck. They needed help and Dr. Alizadeh was on his way. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was about to gain a critical insight that would lead to Mission Restore, an organization that helps connect, support, and train local surgeons in the neediest parts of the world.
Dr. Alizadeh is a top New York area reconstructive plastic surgeon who had been dedicated to helping others since he was a student at Cornell Medical School. As a senior in 1993, a scholarship had taken him to Afghan refugee camps for 4 months where he saw massive suffering because snafus in communication and distribution undermined attempts to get the right medications to the right patients. It stuck with him. Organization was as important as diagnosis and treatment.
After this experience, he traveled around the world as a teacher, doctor, and humanitarian – with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Smile Train, and many others – helping the needy from South America to Asia and Africa.
During these journeys, he realized that he could provide more help by “teaching a doctor to fish” instead of doing surgery himself and then leaving for another troubled spot in the world. He says, “This led me to focus on sustainable training and teaching in areas of the world where there are the smallest number of trained physicians, relative to population size.”
He adds, “That puts you smack in the middle of Africa. For example, in Tanzania, a country of 50 million people, there are only two trained plastic surgeons.”
His travels and research taught him that the best chance of creating long lasting change was in countries with political stability where smart, young doctors in surgery could enhance their skills.
He also learned that the things American doctors take for granted – such as how to set up a practice or develop a network of doctors – were poorly understood or developed.
To get things started, Mission Restore paid African doctors to join them in Kenya at an annual symposium where they were vetted as possible candidates for training. If accepted, they had to commit to spend 2-5 years in the program.
Dr. Alizadeh said, “In Kenya, we taught them how to network using WhatsApp and got 200 doctors in the network. We were just setting up mini-financing when Covid hit and we’re getting back to it now.” He makes it clear that mini-financing is not the well-known micro-financing model because even in poor countries, medical equipment costs a lot more than what might be needed to make home goods.
The effort is starting to pay off. He smiles with pride when he says, “In 2019 we had our first African doctor who was trained by an African doctor.” A small but historic start.
Along the way, perhaps the biggest discovery was that a focus on training women surgeons had a bigger impact on the communities than training men. That’s because male doctors were more likely to leave their community when “trained up”, while the women tended to stay. For the past 3 years, the focus has been on women. “It’s practical”, he says, “and is built on a tested proof-of-concept.
”When asked what could speed up and expand the process, he says what so many humanitarian doctors say, “More thoughtful funders. People who care about the longer-term view. And, of course, more money.
”Thank you, Dr. Alizadeh, for your Profile in Caring.