A Polish hospital has angels on its side

Bartlett at work  at the Polish-American Children’s Hospital

Bartlett (center) at work in the surgical suite of the Polish-American Children’s Hospital in Krakow.

Life in Eastern Europe has gotten better since the fall of Communism. But the countries of the former Soviet Bloc still have a good deal of catching up to do before they can take their place alongside the affluent West.

Two Penn faculty members are doing their part to help Poland catch up on the medical front.

Each spring, Associate Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Scott Bartlett and Professor and Chair of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Peter Quinn travel to Krakow, Poland, with supplies and surgical expertise to assist the doctors at Poland’s largest children’s hospital, the Polish-American Children’s Hospital. Bartlett has been making the trips since 1986; Quinn joined him in 1991.

Their goal: to help the hospital realize its full potential and fill unmet medical needs.

“There is a huge population of underserved people in Poland and the surrounding Central and Eastern European countries,” Bartlett said. According to Bartlett, many children that would receive good care in the United States go unseen in Poland.

And, in the opinion of the U.S. doctors, the Polish staff was capable of serving them. “It was a good hospital, they had good infrastructure, they could do much more sophisticated work with a little help,” said Bartlett.

Over the years, Bartlett and Quinn have helped the staff build skills by training them in increasingly advanced surgical techniques and providing them with the equipment they needed. “You can’t do surgery without equipment,” Bartlett said. They started by bringing surgical tools that their hospitals—Bartlett is on the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia medical staff, and Quinn practices at HUP—were going to discard or trade in. “They’re perfectly serviceable, and we would use them again over there.”

As the years passed, they solicited donations from manufacturers of surgical hardware and more sophisticated equipment, including a $10,000 microscope from the company that supplies CHOP. “They get the publicity and the tax write-off, and we get a microscope. It’s a win-win situation,” Bartlett said.

“Just by using little things like this, you can direct the flow of goods where they are needed.”

The pair is also helping the hospital adjust from a state-run to a market-driven health care system. Polish hospitals, Bartlett said, “live from hand to mouth every day.

“There was a rumor last spring that injured kids from Iraq might be brought to Poland. The hospital has the capability of taking on these extra kids, and if they can make a little extra money by working on them, they want to do that.” Bartlett is working with an old friend, U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to make the rumor into reality.

Quinn noted that their medical mission differs from oft-criticized “medical safari” trips because they are building skills. “You have to leave with a legacy of somebody else who can do that surgery.”

This philosophy ties closely with the intent of the trip’s original sponsor, Project HOPE, which provides medical education and services to people in underdeveloped countries. Now that Project HOPE has turned its attention to needier nations, the pair is looking for new funding sources for the educational and equipment portions of their trip. The Center for Human Appearance at Penn, with which both are affiliated, currently picks up all costs, and the doctors pay their own travel expenses.

“We’re looking for a Polish-American angel,” Bartlett said.

Originally published on April 1, 2004