For the past year, Dr. Peter Gabos, pediatric spine surgeon at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., has been traveling to Belize City, Belize, with Spine Overseas. This nonprofit organization brings together healthcare, education, and technology in order to provide contemporary spine surgery and care in places where this care doesn’t currently exist. Through the generous support of multiple medical device and equipment companies, Spine Overseas has been able to bring state-of-the-art technology to Central America.
“I joined Spine Overseas when adult spine surgeon [and Spine Overseas cofounder] Dr. John Williams told me they needed a pediatric surgeon to help kids with severe spinal deformities in Belize City,” says Dr. Gabos. “When I read their mission statement, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Meeting a Friend for Life
One child Dr. Gabos recently helped is 8-year-old Alex, who was previously diagnosed with asthma due to significant difficulty breathing. But what Dr. Gabos and his team discovered was that Alex actually has a condition called “thoracic insufficiency syndrome” (TIS) due to severe congenital (present at birth) spinal and rib abnormalities. TIS occurs when malformations of the spine and chest cavity make it impossible for the lungs to grow normally.
If Alex didn’t undergo a critical life-saving procedure soon, he would likely succumb to breathing difficulties as he continued to grow.
Life-Changing Spine Surgery
During a four-hour surgery at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City, Dr. Gabos made multiple openings in Alex’s chest cavity, separating fused and deformed ribs, and reshaping his entire thorax (the upper part of the torso, between the neck and the stomach). “We inserted a pair of devices, called ‘VEPTRs,’ that connect to the ribs and spine and maintain the new shape of the chest. The procedure expanded Alex’s chest cavity, so his lungs will have room to grow as Alex grows,” Dr. Gabos explains.
The impact of the surgery was immediate. Amazingly, Alex was sitting up and walking the very next day.
“I couldn’t believe how fast he recovered,” says Dr. Gabos. “I’m not sure if I grabbed the pink basin because I thought Alex might get sick, or if it was really just to catch my own tears, which were streaming down my face.”
“The impact we can make in these kids’ lives, as well as for the health care providers we train, is truly humbling,” says Dr. Gabos. “I learned a long time ago that none of this is about me. If you make compassion the essential foundation of your personal philosophy, there is nothing that can’t be achieved. I start each day with a simple question: How may I serve?”