Reaching out

Steamboat doctor takes 21st century medicine to remote areas

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It's easy for U.S. doctors to get caught up in the time and effort needed to begin their own practices. What often lost in the daily shuffle is why they became doctors in the first place -- to help others.

But Steamboat Springs surgeon Mark Hermacinski hasn't let the rigors of his practice prevent him from helping needy patients. For the past 16 years, Hermacinski has volunteered for extended periods of time in the poorest regions of Nepal and India, where he performs general surgical procedures.

"The opportunity to help these people is very exciting," he said Thursday over breakfast at Winona's in downtown Steamboat. "There is health care in India for the rich. There is no health care in India for the poor. It is an honor to have that knowledge and experience to use to help people."

Hermacinski received an honor of his own in November, when the Dalai Lama -- a man known for compassion and kindness -- recognized Hermacinski for generously providing free medical care to those who otherwise would have none.

Hermacinski was one of 47 men and women from around the world who were invited by the Wisdom in Action organization to San Francisco to meet the Dalai Lama.

"He took the microphone and gave a speech on kindness and compassion. He had the whole room mesmerized," Hermacinski said. "I would say it's always worth the opportunity to get to see him."

Like most of the people invited to see the Dalai Lama last November, Hermacinski said just being able to help others is the real honor.

"I'm going over (to Asia) and doing very little, I feel," he said. "There are so many people who do volunteer work all over the world."

Hermacinski's surgical work in Asia began in 1990, when he traveled to Nepal as a medical student still living in Chicago. He was attracted to the region for the chance to trek and see the Himalayas. He found so much more.

"At that time, I met a Nepali surgeon and fell in love with the country and the people," Hermacinski said. "I said to him, 'I want to come back and work here.'"

When Hermacinski completed his general surgery residency in 1995, he took a year off and went to work as a volunteer surgeon in Katmandu, Nepal.

He also traveled to remote villages -- with names he can't remember or even pronounce if he could -- where he performed surgeries for hernias, lumps and bumps, some orthopedic services and other plastic and general surgical procedures.

"I would go back every year and do some different surgical and medical camps in Nepal," he said. "I go by myself and work with Nepali doctors. ... Mostly what we are doing is working with the doctor in the town so he can gain experience."

Hermacinski and his wife, Cari, who helps when she travels overseas with her husband, plan to return to Nepal in April for 10 days. He hasn't been there in five years because of civil unrest in the country.

Instead, he has been working in India.

"The Indians have set up a surgical center but use volunteer surgeons -- mostly from the U.S.," Hermacinski said.

In general, the response from the rural population has been positive, Hermacinski said. For some, particularly in remote villages of Nepal, Hermacinski was one of the first -- if not the first -- American they ever met.

"They hear a camp is coming, and they are very excited when Western doctors are coming to camps," he said. "When I go over there, what I would do in three months time here I do in one week. I work morning to night. It's exhausting, but very fulfilling."

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