South Shore surgeon joins volunteers in Caribbean |

South Shore surgeon joins volunteers in Caribbean

Susan Wood
Mike Peele, left, from St. Louis, and Steve Bannar prepare for surgery in November at St. Lucia.

To Dr. Stephen Bannar, it may take a medical teaching trip a quarter of the way around the world to learn the most powerful lesson about American health care.

We have it good.

Bannar just returned from spending 23 days at St. Lucia, an island country in the Caribbean, with the Health Volunteers Overseas, a private nonprofit dedicated to improving global health through education and training. It was the doctor’s second trip with the Washington-based organization formed in 1986 as a division of the World Health Organization. His first journey in 1995 took him to South and Central Vietnam.

“It’s hard to imagine the resources of the Third World. They’re stretched to the limit without a natural disaster,” he said of Sunday’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

With Sri Lanka now getting its first reports of measles and diarrhea, health officials fear the worst is yet to come in terms of the disaster’s ever-climbing death toll.

The South Lake Tahoe orthopedist, who works for Tahoe Fracture & Orthopedic Medical Clinic, predicted infection and disease would claim as many lives as the tsunami.

During his tour of duty at St. Jude Hospital in St. Lucia, it became quickly apparent to Bannar that volunteer doctors have to make do with what they have. There’s difficulty in even finding an adequate amount of writing pens and securing antibiotics.

Bannar brought with him surgical instruments and implant materials donated by Barton Memorial Hospital.

Unlike in the United States, joint replacement technology isn’t available.

“It’s hard for them to comprehend that jump,” he said. In comparison, knee replacements, for example, have become a way of life in South Lake Tahoe.

It may be even harder for Americans to understand how the British Commonwealth country’s more than 156,000 citizens can thrive on anything less than advanced health care.

Bannar returned home with a deep sense of appreciation for what he has after facing a world of poverty.

“These trips open up our minds to the bigger picture,” he said. “Sanitizing is the most important. Fixing one severed arm is a drop in the bucket compared to what they’re going through.”

Nonetheless, Bannar showed the St. Lucia doctors how they could reattach tendons and nerves on severed limbs.

“We didn’t teach them how to do American medicine. We teach them to maximize resources and get the best results,” he said.

Because the island community is located along a drug-trade path, violence has remained prevalent.

The majority of the medical community’s cases involve violence, infections, trauma and car accidents.

Bannar received a crash course in the culture.

On a primary diet of beans and rice, Bannar said he lost weight fast.

When he went to the fish market, he saw a cut-open dolphin.

“I thought it was a mistake,” he said.

Someone told him it’s “sweet meat.”

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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