It was 1986 when Scott Bartlett, MD, first traveled to Krakow, Poland. He went as a favor to a friend who was connected with an organization called Project HOPE. Bartlett never imagined that first visit would turn into two and a half decades of work, 70 weeks spent in this central European city, and hundreds of surgeries for patients who desperately needed his help.
Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) was founded in 1958. In its early years, the organization built hospitals in disadvantaged areas, and in the mid-1970s, Project HOPE helped develop educational programs for healthcare workers at the Polish-American Children’s Hospital (PACH), which later became University Children’s Hospital of Krakow. Project HOPE also began recruiting volunteers to provide healthcare services at the hospital. Bartlett made his first visit with a group out of Boston, and kept going back with this group once a year through the early ’90s.
Each time Bartlett went to Poland, he carried surgical instruments with him to equip the hospital for the facial reconstructions he was providing to children who came from all over Poland and other parts of central Europe. “The hospital had no resources to do these complex surgeries, so I brought over everything I could — out-of-date surgical instruments and other supplies,” says Bartlett. “I convinced one medical supplies manufacturer to donate a microscope, and another provided surgical plates and screws.”
The more time Bartlett spent in Krakow, the more he realized the huge need for a plastic surgeon with expertise in pediatric craniofacial surgeries. “When I got started doing this work in Poland, there was only one other surgeon in the entire country doing the types of procedures required for children with conditions that had caused craniofacial malformations,” he says. “These families travel hundreds of miles, from all over Poland and surrounding countries, to get help. They have so few options.”
Over the years, Bartlett has built a reputation in Poland for himself — and for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “They mostly hear about my visits by word of mouth, but there are also foundations in Poland that spread the news about when I’ll be holding my clinic in Krakow,” he says. Bartlett’s work was even written up in Krakow’s largest newspaper.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this work anywhere,” says Bartlett. “This is not a third-world country, which wouldn’t have the resources and infrastructure to support the complexity of the surgery, and the follow-up care these children need when the repair has been done. I am really able to help here and make a huge difference in these families’ lives.”
Bartlett now travels to Krakow two to three times a year. He holds a clinic on Monday, and then sets a surgical schedule for the rest of the week. After he leaves, he stays in contact with doctors in Krakow via email and phone to keep the patients’ care plans on track. Some children have even been able to come to CHOP for care.
Bartlett has become so ingrained in the community at University Children’s Hospital of Krakow that the hospital director asked him if he could help raise funds in the United States to support the institution. So in collaboration with a Polish friend he’d made on his travels, Bartlett set up the Children’s Medical Foundation of Central and Eastern Europe in 2006. The foundation raises money to pay for equipment for the hospital and education for its staff. They’ve used funds to bring cardiologists and intensivists from Poland to observe at CHOP. In addition to the Krakow hospital, Bartlett’s foundation has identified more than a dozen other under-funded hospitals that will benefit from the money it raises.
“It’s important to me that I keep coming back to the same place,” he says. “Not only do I get to see the same children again and again, but I’m able to see the progress that’s being made at the hospital year after year. I consider these people to be dear friends, and look forward to every week I get to spend with them.”
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