by Jeff McConnell, MD
Founder, Operation Straight Spine
I believe I can speak for my fellow classmates that June of 1981 was one of the highlights of our lives. It was an exciting time knowing that we were graduating from Bucknell University and about to embark on our chosen career paths. It was equally exciting not knowing exactly where our professional and personal journeys might lead us in the future. My own personal journey led me to a career in medicine. It has been 30 years since our graduation from Bucknell and I could never have imagined that one day I would be performing spinal surgery in Kolkata, India.
After graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, my personal journey continued with an orthopaedic surgery residency at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA., where I met and married Christine, my lovely wife of 24 years. We have three wonderful boys and Cameron, the oldest, is entering his junior year at Bucknell. After orthopaedic residency I completed subspecialty training in spinal surgery at the University of Maryland. The next three years were spent at the Naval Regional Medical Center, Portsmouth, VA., repaying an obligation to the Navy for a scholarship that helped pay for medical school.
After leaving the Navy I began a very successful spine surgery practice in Northeast Tennessee. Seven years into that practice I was presented with an opportunity to study with one of the world’s best spine surgeons and further my expertise in spine surgery – it was an opportunity that I could not refuse. This opportunity meant that I must give up my lucrative practice and move my family to Nottingham, England. It was the best decision we could ever make.
Working in the Centre for Spinal Studies and Surgery, Queen’s Medical Centre, University of Nottingham, was a dream job. The experience of working in the UK National Health System was both challenging and rewarding and it gave us the opportunity to make many new friends. Among our new friends was a fellow orthopaedic surgeon by the name of Ujjwal Debnath. We not only enjoyed sharing pints of Guinness at the pub, we also shared a vision: to give something back to the global community by treating patients who would otherwise not have access to spinal surgery procedures. From this vision was born Operation Straight Spine (OSS), and we decided the best place to perform our mission work was Kolkata, India.
From conception to inception the project took 5 years. Due diligence, planning, logistics, government red tape, drumming up local support, equipment procurement, team building and fundraising all had to be addressed before seeing our first patient. In the U.S. I founded the non-profit organization Spine Education and Research Foundation (SERF) in order to raise the necessary funds to support OSS.
For the past 5 years, Dr. Debnath and I and other volunteers from the U.S. and the U.K. have returned to Kolkata to carry on the work of OSS at the Ramakrishna Mission Hospital. We have treated many indigent patients with spinal deformities and diseases but one patient in particular stands out in our hearts and minds.
Juli Sharma was a nine-year-old girl who presented to the OSS team in extreme pain with the inability to walk from severe weakness in her arms and legs. She appeared very ill and emaciated, her small body racked with tuberculosis, a disease once known as “Consumption”. Julie’s social situation was equally dire. Her mother had died, her father, an unemployed farmer, could not afford to take care of her and gave her up to a family to work as a house servant.
X-Rays and MRI scan revealed the disease had spread to her cervical spine destroying several vertebrae and causing a deformity known as Kyphosis. There was a large epidural abscess compressing her spinal cord and causing the weakness. If we did not act, Juli would eventually become paralyzed and ultimately die. We stabilized her spine with screws and small rods and then removed several diseased vertebrae, drained the infection and decompressed her spinal cord. The vertebrae were reconstructed with a piece of bone taken from her lower leg.
In the days following surgery Juli did well but we all knew that her long-term survival would depend on her receiving appropriate medical treatment and a stable social environment. We enlisted the help of the HOPE foundation, Ireland, which had an established facility in Kolkata where Juli would live with sixty other girls. There she would attend school, learn to read and write and most importantly receive the 18 month course of four different drugs to eradicate the tuberculosis.
A year later the OSS team returned to Kolkata to find Juli happy, healthy and wearing a smile that would light up any room. A simple smile on a patient’s face returns a reward that words sometimes fail to address. It is all we need to remind us why we come here.
Thirty years after graduating from Bucknell I look back with gratitude. I have been truly blessed with my career and personal life and giving back to the global community was a natural evolution for me. Bucknell gave me the foundation to have the expertise, courage, creativity and perseverance necessary to face the challenges of making a difference in the lives of patients with complex spinal conditions who would otherwise have gone without care.
(article was first written in June 2011 for the Bucknell University Magazine)