07.02.05

Hands of a Surgeon – The Standard Times

This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on July 2, 2005

HANDS OF A SURGEON

Dartmouth doctor Robert Bach performs miracles in Nicaragua

By BETH DAVID, Standard-Times correspondent

DARTMOUTH — Positivo! Positivo!

That’s what Gail Bach heard as she ran down a Boston street, convinced that they’d be late.The words of encouragement came from Marina Robles, a Nicaraguan woman who lost one son to a car accident and nearly lost another to a tragic, mean-spirited act.

“Basically, that’s Marina,” said Ms. Bach. “She has been positive through everything.”

The story begins in 1974, when Robert Bach, currently a surgeon at Southcoast Hospitals, made a trip to Honduras as part of a surgical team with the Christian Medical Society.

“And that’s when I got the bug,” said Dr. Bach.

In 1975, he started going to Nicaragua twice each year with the Moravian Missionaries. In 1992, “Partners in Health” became a bona fide, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to take on its biggest project: supplying 30 tons of equipment to a new hospital in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.

“I just saw these poor hospital conditions,” said Dr. Bach. “Two in a bed. Mattresses — if there were any mattresses — were in terrible shape.”

So Dr. Bach convinced the U.S. Agency for International Development to renovate some buildings for a hospital. The catch was that he had to completely equip it.

No problema. In 1993, the new hospital was named Hospital Nuevo Amanacer de enferma Nancy Bach, after Dr. Bach’s first wife who died from cancer. Dr. Bach said the doctors are good; it’s the equipment that’s lacking. So, he scavenges.

“Because the real joy is to take a piece of equipment and teach them how to use it,” he said.

Dr. Bach, who earned his degree from Columbia University, has lived in South Dartmouth for only a few years. He’s happy to be close to his grandchildren, but he misses Maine, where he could scrounge up a truckload of used hospital equipment without trying.

“People in Maine knew who I was,” said Dr. Bach. “They would always call me with stuff.”

He said St. Luke’s Hospital has been “aggressive” in helping him find equipment, but he still doesn’t know enough people in the right positions yet. Still, Partners in Health has added seven more sites to their list. Dr. Bach said he never knows what he’ll find when he goes to Nicaragua.

“In the beginning, they would save cases for me. Now … I go to help. Or maybe they save some complicated cases for me.”

On one trip, about three years ago, the doctors at Lenin Fonseca Hospital in Managua asked him to look at an 18-year-old boy who should have been dead. An angry girlfriend had put battery acid in his drink, and the boy’s esophagus completely burned away. Dr. Bach quickly realized the boy needed surgery too complicated for any hospital in Nicaragua. So, they took him to Boston Children’s Hospital, and young Ronald Robles had his esophagus completely replaced with a section of his colon. Ronald has had many surgeries during the last three years. Some failed, giving both mother and son many opportunities to be discouraged.

But three months ago, Ronald started eating solid food. His mother, who does not speak English, acted out her response to the news that her son would die. She grabbed the doctor by the shirt, shook him vigorously, and screamed at him to save her son. Weeks later, when she learned there was an American doctor in the hospital, she chased him down. After Dr. Bach left Nicaragua, Ms. Robles e-mailed him constantly.

“I believe it’s because of her (that he lived),” said Ms. Bach. “You can thank God all you want, it’s really his mother that’s pulled him through.”

As for young Ronald, the doctors told him he would die on that very first night. But he refused. After a week, they stopped telling him he would die and started telling him he would never eat again. He cries when he talks about Dr. Bach.

“I never would eat in my country. I think it’s a miracle to know Dr. Bach, because he changed my life,” said Ronald. “The first God is above. The second god is Dr. Bach, because he made it possible to eat again.”

The list of people who have pitched in to help would fill a ream of paper. And the Robles are grateful to all of them as they plan their return to Nicaragua next week. And what about the jealous girlfriend?

“I learned to forgive,” said Ronald, giving credit for the lesson to the people at the Temple Renaciemiento Church in New Bedford.

The road and the battle have been long for both mother and son. Ronald’s mother lost her successful retail business, her apartment, and her belongings. But Marina Robles shoos away the negatives with a wave of her hand. She will find work. Ronald will return to University for computer technology. They will manage. She is positivo.