Vascular surgeon Vincent Rowe with a young patient in Honduras
Vincent Rowe is not the only doctor at the Keck Medical Center of USC who has a waiting list of patients trying to get an appointment. But he might be the only one who also has a waiting list at a small clinic in San Pedro Sula.
Rowe spent four summer days in Honduras’ second-largest city, where he has volunteered his surgical services for the last nine years. During those four days, he performed more than 20 dialysis access surgeries in an understaffed and underfunded hospital operating room.
Dialysis access is defined as an entranceway into a patient’s bloodstream that lies completely beneath the skin and is easy to use. Because Rowe is the only vascular surgeon who ever visits that corner of the world, his waiting list is growing all the time.
“I had always wanted to do volunteer work,” said Rowe, professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, “but I didn’t know where I could go to best utilize my specific surgical skill set.”
Rowe noted that there are established organizations for surgeons in other specialties, such as Operation Smile, for example, but no similar organization exists for vascular surgeons. He stumbled upon this opportunity about 10 years ago when a former USC dialysis technician, who had started a dialysis clinic in Honduras, told him that his clinic needed someone to perform up-to-date access surgery on the patients.
What he has learned in nearly a decade of biannual surgical trips to the Central American nation is that there is a huge need for vascular surgeons.
“There are few specialists,” he explained, “and so most of the access surgeries are performed by general surgeons.” Since many of them were done incorrectly, Rowe focuses his services on providing access to difficult patients and revising poorly functioning accesses.
After multiple visits, Rowe learned that children who need dialysis simply don’t have the same options in Honduras. Youngsters in the United States can get a kidney transplant, but that service is not widely available in Honduras. Compounding the problem, most of the surgeons in the region, even those that will attempt access operations on adults, won’t take on the risk of operating on a child.
Now, more than half of Rowe’s patients in Honduras are children. His pediatric dialysis access experience carried over to his practice in the United States, and he is now the sole vascular surgeon providing dialysis access at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Dr. Rowe’s work in Honduras is both impressive and inspiring,” said Fred Weaver, professor of surgery at the Keck School, who has traveled to Honduras with Rowe. “He operates in less-than-perfect conditions and very often on small children and, through his efforts, he has turned around dozens of lives.”
Rowe, who is planning to return to Honduras at the end of the year, said that while there is no shortage of patients, there is a shortage of just about everything else. Since the clinic has few supplies, he has to find institutions willing to donate the necessities — such as gloves and grafts — in order to continue his work.
The most critical supply he would like to have — more hands to help. And to that end, he is in the process of launching a nonprofit organization he has named Access to Access. Through this organization, he hopes to inform others of the need for surgical supplies and, most importantly, more vascular surgeons.
Rowe assumed that there are other vascular surgeons in a position that he was in a decade ago — looking for a way to volunteer and realizing no such organization exists that puts their skills to use. He hopes that Access to Access will fill that void, bringing much-needed relief to deserving dialysis patients in Central America.
“This can help people find a way to use their talent in a way it was meant to be used,” said Rowe, who added that volunteering abroad is a regenerating experience for him. “It doesn’t involve billing and authorizations. It is medicine in its purest form, which is just helping people who need it.”