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Surgeon Lends a Helping Hand in South America

Daniel Mass, MD, fielded an unusual request during his first medical mission to Peru in 1999. A laborer needed his index finger turned into a thumb to replace the amputated digit.

Daniel Mass, MD Orthopaedic surgeon Daniel Mass, MD, marks the site of a syndactyly release for a young patient at Rebagliati Hospital in Lima, Peru. The procedure corrects "webbed" fingers and toes.

"All specialties have a premium, challenging procedure. For mine, it’s making a thumb out of an index finger," said Mass, professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine. "It can’t get more exciting as a surgeon."

For Mass, restoring patients’ hand functions and flexibility in South America has evolved into an annual medical mission. Thanks to a professional contact in Arequipa, Peru, he has privileges in hospitals in Lima and Arequipa for his volunteer work with the poor and uninsured. His patients are of every age, starting with six-month-old infants with fused fingers and toes at a children’s hospital.

Others include young men in their 20s and 30s, factory workers who have suffered traumatic hand injuries. One industrial accident can end a breadwinner’s ability to provide for his family.

Mass takes his UChicago Medicine fellows with him from hospital to hospital. His team logs hundreds of procedures, up to 12 a day. The operating rooms conditions are modest -- some have 30-year-old equipment and 90-year-old floors.

For the fellows, this two-week mission is an education. They correct many congenital and pediatric conditions that they don’t often see back in Chicago.

Fellow Anna Avik, DO, learned to be innovative, making do without high-tech hardware to help fix congenital defects. One memorable case involved a claw hand; the patient’s fingers were noticeably bent.

The trip was "an invaluable experience and I feel fortunate to have participated," she said.

Mass himself has learned to appreciate "doing first-class work with limited resources," he said. "We have an overabundance of resources in the United States. "We’re a throw-away society."

Daniel Mass, Erycka Florie and Peruvians Daniel Mass, MD, third from left, and colleagues in Lima, Peru. University of Chicago Medicine fellow Erycka Florie, DO, is at the right of the fish sculpture.

The orthopaedic surgeon originally tried to make do with the dated hand drills, sutures and instruments. Now, he invests in and supplies much of his own equipment, including Kirschner wires (surgical pins) and forceps, scissors and needles. He has paid for an estimated $20,000 in supplies to date.

The buck doesn’t stop here. The local hospital used to pick up his hotel tab through Health Volunteers Overseas. But, the surgeon now pays for his own lodging as well as all of his fellows’ travel expenses.

Mass cites his educational background as good preparation for complex surgical challenges to restore manual dexterity. As a child, he loved solving jigsaw puzzles. His undergraduate years at the University of Chicago and his medical training at Pritzker School of Medicine also taught him to ask the right questions and to think outside the box.

"Part of the reason that I enjoy my work at the University and going to Peru is the gratification I get helping people out of pain and their return to function," Mass said. "And even for me, I’m learning and seeing new and interesting cases every time I go."

February 2015

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