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by Jill Clendening | Thursday, Sep. 8, 2016, 9:20 AM
James O’Neill, M.D., professor of Surgery and former chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), has received an International Surgical Volunteerism Award from the American College of Surgeons (ACS) for more than three decades of service as a surgeon and educator in medically underserved countries.
“The International Surgical Volunteerism Award from the American College of Surgeons is a well-deserved high honor for Dr. O’Neill and makes us all proud of his accomplishments,” said R. Daniel Beauchamp, M.D., John Clinton Foshee Distinguished Professor of Surgery and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences. “This is appropriate recognition of his years of outstanding contributions to establishing and sustaining surgical education and improving surgical care to Kenya and other underserved regions of the world.”
O’Neill joined VUMC in 1971, serving as chair of Pediatric Surgery until 1981, when he left to become surgeon-in-chief at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the C.E. Koop Professor of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He returned to Vanderbilt in 1995, serving as chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and surgeon-in-chief at VUMC and Children’s Hospital through 2002.
O’Neill’s first experiences with international medical service were in Guatemala, where he provided pediatric surgical care, and in China with Project Hope, where he helped establish a children’s hospital in Shanghai.
After stepping down as chair of the Section of Surgical Services at VUMC, O’Neill dedicated more time to the development of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance and to international humanitarian medical work.
He became active in the ACS Operation Giving Back Program and was a key player in both the clinical arena as a pediatric surgeon and in the education of surgical residents at two hospitals in Kenya — the Naivasha District Hospital and Kijabe Hospital. In fact, his early experiences in Kenya convinced him that he needed to expand his volunteer work to include not just clinical service, but also a concerted effort to educate physicians in medically underserved areas.
“I have worked in many countries and seen great poverty, but when I first visited a refugee camp in Kenya in 2003, I was impressed by the great need of poor children to have access to safe surgical and anesthesia care,” said O’Neill. “That got me started in the current effort I am involved in with other colleagues of mine. When I realized how few capable pediatric surgeons there are in East Africa, I knew that I needed to be involved in surgical education there, and that it would be an opportunity for Vanderbilt Surgery as well.”
The primary site of his international practice has been Kijabe Hospital, where, since 2006, he has spent six to eight weeks each year supporting the hospital’s sole pediatric surgeon, Erik Hansen, M.D., who is also a pediatric surgeon at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Humanitarian activities have increased in Africa in recent decades, and as the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa-approved residency programs have developed, O’Neill has played a significant role in supporting the pediatric surgery residency program at Kijabe.
He helped implement a pediatric surgery training program for African surgeons, based on the American model, to address critical surgical workforce shortages in Kenya and throughout Africa. Graduates of the pediatric surgery program now hold positions in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon.
“I encourage young people to take advantage of being involved in mission work, but in an expanded model that includes surgical education and clinical research, what I like to call the ‘New Humanitarianism,’” said O’Neill.
“It is an opportunity for our surgical and other trainees to experience things they never see here, and they have a chance to be more independent. Most importantly, it is an opportunity for those who work in this area to learn values that only humanitarian work can provide. It is medicine at its best, and it is what keeps me going.”
The contributions of O’Neill and other award recipients will be recognized at the ACS Clinical Congress 2016 in Washington, D.C., in October, and the honorees will speak during a panel session on humanitarian surgical outreach.
Jill Clendening, (615) 322-4747
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