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A Life’s Work Not Bound by Walls

Dec. 15, 2022

The passion that the people of UC Health have for improving lives through their daily work drives them to help others—near and far—well beyond their walls and after work hours.

Their recent impact spans continents and communities, each effort an example of innovative solutions, unstoppable spirit of caring and an ability to deliver world-class medical care even in the most challenging conditions. 

It’s this commitment to finding a way to care, no matter the circumstance, that sets them apart as they serve local patients every day and as integral members of the global medical community.  
At a glance:

  • In war-torn Ukraine, neurosurgeon Jonathan Forbes, MD, and a team traveled from the U.S. to help those impacted by the conflict, providing neurosurgical care, training in neurotrauma and helping with development of an ICU on a train to get critical services to those in need.

  • Most recently in Kenya, and previously in Uganda, Chad Zender, MD, and Katrina Harrill, RN, provided surgical intervention for patients with head and neck diseases. They operate through the nonprofit they founded together in 2017 after years of traveling to Uganda—Head and Neck Outreach—which also helps improve care in this region through education, research and development of surgical programs.

  • In Cincinnati, the UC Health Community Relations team continued its efforts to promote health equity by organizing volunteers from UC Health Volunteer Ambassadors program and community partners to set up a Health Pavilion at the 34th Annual Black Family Reunion event in August 2022. Volunteers and staff provided health screenings, education and support services to attendees, including blood pressure readings, and head and neck, prostate and lung cancer pre-screens. 

  • In Tanzania, Christopher Lewis, MD, has been making an impact for nearly 20 years by applying the medical knowledge he uses every day in his roles as a UC Health physician and University of Cincinnati Vice Provost to help increase access to healthcare—as well as improve education and overall community wellbeing— through Village Life Outreach Project, Inc., the nonprofit he founded. Primary care, infectious disease and obstetrics and gynecology are some of the services provided through a community-based healthcare approach.

Ukraine: Working Beside Local Doctors to Save Lives during War 

Not many people are compelled to run toward an active war zone, but Jonathan Forbes, MD, neurosurgeon at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and assistant professor at the UC College of Medicine, saw a need and put his skills to work in Lviv, Ukraine, in April, at the height of the war. 

While there, Dr. Forbes and a small team performed surgeries for complex neurological cases, educated Ukrainian healthcare providers on care of high-velocity penetrating intracranial injury and helped with the development of an intensive care unit (ICU) on a train car so patients could be transported from war zones to major hospitals. 

 “It was a privilege to provide some element of assistance, however small, to the Ukrainian cause. Improving neurosurgical outcomes through collaboration in our community, in Ukraine and throughout the world is critical to our academic mission,” Dr. Forbes said of his experience. 

A group of former colleagues living in Ukraine that had completed fellowships with Dr. Forbes began sharing updates from their lives as the war began and as it progressed. They painted a picture of increasing danger for them personally—a parent’s home bombed, a car shot through by gunfire—and of the medical care needed to help military patients. 

In the early weeks of the war, Dr. Forbes provided virtual consultations on complex cases to help Ukrainian physicians manage the influx in cases they were seeing. But by the second month of the war, when he received word that a hospital equipped to accommodate only 12 patients in its ICU was caring for 80 soldiers due to challenges in moving patients to other hospitals through Russian-occupied territories, the plan for an in-person visit began to develop. 

The foundation was set for Dr. Forbes to visit back in 2018, when he visited Ukraine with friend and colleague Dr. Luke Tomycz to provide assistance with complex neurosurgical cases. During that visit, he formed relationships with a group of six neurosurgeons, who went on to become fellows at the UC Goodyear Microsurgery Training Lab, and later, were the key contacts in Ukraine that inspired his 10-day visit earlier this year.

Among those supporting the initiative were UC Health, John and Susan Tew, Dr. Forbes’ wife, Julie, the intensivist team in the Neurocritical Care Unit, Dr. Joseph Cheng and the entire UC neurosurgery department and the Greater Cincinnati community.

Uganda: Transforming Lives through Head and Neck Surgery

The spirit of academic medicine—specifically the collaboration and commitment to furthering impact by educating the future generation of physicians—is central to the story of Dr. Zender’s team and their work in Africa helping patients with complex head and neck conditions.

Head and Neck Outreach (HNO), founded by Chad Zender, MD, senior vice president and chief of physician practices, associate chief medical officer, and professor for the UC College of Medicine, and Katrina Harrill, RN, has its roots in a collaborative program developed with Dr. Jeff Otiti and the Uganda Cancer Institute and Case Western Reserve University. HNO serves patients with life-threatening and often disfiguring conditions that limit their ability to be fully part of their community. 

“I experience the transformative care in the OR that restores patients, mends families and brings people together again sometimes after many years of hiding,” Katrina said of the impact of this work both on the communities, and her personally. “I watch as families and strangers work together to provide care for our patients on the ward after surgery while educating the staff along the way.” 

After several trips to Uganda the past several years, the most recent trip required a quick pivot due to an Ebola outbreak. Instead of canceling the care these communities were relying on, Dr. Zender partnered with his mentor, Dr. James Netterville of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to pool their resources and expend Dr. Netterville’s planned effort in Malindi, Kenya, which resulted in care for an additional 30 patients. 

For both Dr. Zender and Katrina, their daily work with UC Health informs their work in Africa, while their work in Africa brings fresh perspective and renewed appreciation for their work at home. 

“We can lose sight of our true purpose with administrative duties, paperwork, new policies and other necessary distractors. The sacrifice and effort this work requires help to remind me that as a physician, the 'other' work should always take us back to our patients,” Dr. Zender said. “The administrative work we do is a means to an end, and we should always focus on creating viable healthcare systems that can provide the best care possible for our patients.”

Said Katrina: “Uganda brings me back to myself, reminding me why I work so hard for my patients, and why I work so hard to return again each trip.”

Looking ahead, the thread of collaboration will continue well beyond the walls of UC Health through training and education. This multifaceted approach ensures HNO’s impact will be extended into the future through Uganda-based physicians. Dr. Zender and his team support these doctors as they care for the patients in their region with education, equipment and technical support. They also work with residents from Makerere University in Uganda on each trip. They plan to return in the spring of 2023 and to work with their partners who are currently at Mulago Hospital and the Uganda Cancer Institute, continuing to partner with Dr. Otiti.

Cincinnati: Connecting the Community to Healthcare 

UC Health’s Community Relations team identifies ways UC Health can strategically focus its resources to improve the health and wellness of the Greater Cincinnati community. Specifically, they focus on addressing the socio-economic determinants of health and improving access to high-quality healthcare for vulnerable populations.  

Throughout the year, the team actively participates in various health events and programs to bring health screenings, education and information directly to the community. One of the largest and most impactful events is the Annual Midwest Black Family Reunion. Held every August over three days, the event is a cultural weekend focused on the historic strengths and values of the Black Family.

As a long-time presenting sponsor, UC Health sets up a Health Pavilion every year to provide a variety of screenings and health information including blood pressure readings, and head and neck, prostate and lung cancer pre-screens. Community partners Queens Village of Cradle Cincinnati, Closing the Health Gap, Black Men in Medicine and the Black Nurse Practitioners Network were also on hand to provide health education and answer questions. 

In addition to the screenings, the UC Health Trauma Response team provides education and training for attendees on Take10 CPR and Stop the Bleed, as part of efforts to empower individuals to provide immediate care during mass shootings and other emergencies.

Key internal partners included: Tamara Lang, senior director for Community Relations; Dan Maxwell, manager for Community Relations; Jarvis Graham, manager for Community Relations; Kelly Hummel, program director for the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center; Chad McGarvie, Burn Program manager; Gina Menninger, Trauma Prevention and Outreach coordinator; Alvin Crawford, MD, retired UC Health physician and founder of Black Men in Medicine; and Felicia Beckham, founder of Cincinnati Black Nurse Practitioners Network.   

Tanzania: Improving Life, Health & Education

The power of the academic health approach is evident in how students, faculty and practicing professionals come together to improve overall well-being for residents of Tanzania through Village Life Outreach Project, Inc., a non-profit organization founded by UC Health physician, UC Vice Provost and Professor Christopher Lewis, MD. For Dr. Lewis, the impact he strives to make on community members’ well-being has always had its foundation in improving health.

Efforts to improve acute and preventive healthcare include nutrition initiatives, clean drinking water, direct care through mobile field clinics and the Roche Health Center, which provides the first-ever access to permanent healthcare to a region of 20,000 people in rural Tanzania. 
Dr. Lewis and his team continue to expand efforts at Roche, enhancing healthcare programming and growing the facility. Visitors from the U.S., including UC and UC Health students, residents, faculty and professionals, work alongside Tanzanian healthcare professionals for bidirectional learning and maximum impact. 
UC Health leaders, like Stewart Wright, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer, and the vice chair of the Village Life Outreach Project board, also engage with Dr. Lewis and the Village Life Outreach Project. Dr. Wright is a veteran emergency medicine physician and advocate for local and global health.

As Dr. Lewis applies his own medical expertise in Tanzania—a context so unlike where he treats patients day to day—he models the drive for continued research, teaching and clinical care that is at the heart of UC Health. He also provides opportunities for medical students, as well as students in other fields like engineering, to partner with Village Life and enrich their education while making a tangible difference in the lives of others. Their dedication to their fields, and to the people of Tanzania, has changed tens of thousands of lives—and counting.