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Fred Hess, M.D. ’78 (right) prepares to perform spinal surgery on a patient at the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS) Hospital in Accra, Ghana.

The whir of a fan and the swat of a fly swatter

could be heard in the stifling, un-air-conditioned operating room as the thermometer pushed its way to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the operating room resembled a 1950’s Hollywood movie set, complete with nurses clad in starched white uniforms and bobby-pinned caps, this was 2011 in Accra, Ghana, at one of the best hospitals in West Africa.

William Fred Hess, M.D. ’78, pediatric spine surgeon from Geisinger’s Janet Weis Children’s Hospital in Danville, Pa., was six hours into a complicated surgery when the hot, overhead lights buzzed, dimmed and extinguished. Darkness blanketed the entire hospital due to a not-so-uncommon power outage. Without missing a beat, the international volunteer medical team switched on flashlights to illuminate the exposed spine of Salamawit—a beautiful 13-year-old Ethiopian girl—so that Hess could continue correcting the girl’s 120 degree curvature of her spine, a severe and painful deformity called Kyphoscoliosis. It was all in a day’s work.

Fred and his wife, Heather Foster Hess, BSN ’76, are volunteers with the medical missionary group Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS), a nonprofit organization founded in 1988. Its mission is “to provide optimum orthopedic care and improve quality of life in Ghana, Ethiopia and other countries.” Through its international network of more than 250 volunteers, FOCOS sends teams of medical professionals to Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Approximately 30 volunteers travel to Ghana four times a year to conduct complex spine and joint replacement surgeries on patients in need.

Today, Fred, Heather and the other highly trained and talented medical volunteers from around the world work in a state-of-the-art hospital in Accra built, in part, by donations raised by FOCOS. The FOCOS Orthopedic Hospital, which opened in April 2012, is equipped with an out-patient clinic, laboratory, radiology center, physiotherapy center, two air-conditioned operating rooms and a 50-bed ward. Power shortages still occur, but now, with improved technology, doctors and medical personnel wear battery-operated headlamps—just in case.

Hess_and_patients

Nursing care—a high priority

According to Fred, the level of nursing care in Third World countries is different than what is expected in the U.S. FOCOS Hospital places a high priority on quality nursing care. It’s become one of the primary continuing medical education centers in Ghana for nursing updates. Its local nursing staff—professionally trained by Heather and two other FOCOS nurses who earned the nickname “the golden girls”—work alongside the FOCOS volunteers in an environment that promotes education and professional development.

Fred says the hospital has progressed to the point where “we can do the complex stuff that we do with the local people understanding what’s needed, and that has started to propagate. The local nursing staff at the hospital now is basically independent. They are now training the new hires with the higher standards of nursing care that Heather and the ‘golden girls’ taught—to a level that we would consider acceptable in any modern country.

“The thing that allows long-lasting change is to educate local people so they can continue to do the right things to improve their quality of life,” explains Fred. “Going in to do a complex surgery that takes a certain amount of expertise—technically speaking— may not be possible to teach. But, there’s a whole other gamut of basic health care that can be taught and can be brought into the area. The commitment that FOCOS has in Ghana—building the hospital was only part of it—is to continue to educate the people there. It’s a long-standing missionary commitment. That’s a big reason why we volunteer with FOCOS.”

Fred has been making annual and sometimes semi-annual trips to Ghana since 2002, with Heather joining him since 2008. By “straightening” hundreds of severely deformed children and young adults, Fred’s work has enabled them to enter back into their communities as “whole people,” he says. Heather heartwarmingly describes the trips as “fun.”

“To see these patients transformed is amazing,” Heather says. “These kiddos from Ethiopia and Sierra Leone are deformed. In their communities back home they’re ostracized. They’re put in the back rooms of homes and they don’t have friends to play with. They come to FOCOS Hospital and they’re made straight instead of crooked. They go home straight and now they can play with other children. Eventually they can get jobs. They can get married. They can have children. They can be productive members of society. That’s what’s really cool about it,” she says.

Hess_Teddy

The Albright connection

Fred credits his favorite Albright professor, Janet Gehres ’54, emerita assistant professor of biology, for encouraging him to pursue medical school. “I would not be a physician if it were not for Janet,” says Fred. Heather, who also took Gehres’ “Anatomy and Physiology” class, says the professor made a lasting impression on both of them. “She was fascinating,” reminisces Heather. “A and P was probably my favorite class in college, my husband’s too. Because of Janet, Fred became a doctor,” Heather says. “She encouraged him and encouraged him. He applied, got into a couple of medical schools and chose the University of South Florida.”

At first, Fred wanted to be a family practice doctor, but as he delved into his studies he became fascinated with surgery.

After completing medical school and his first year of residency, the Hesses moved to Gallup, N.M., for a three-year stint with the National Health Service Corp. Fred worked as a physician on the Navajo Reservation in exchange for the payoff of his medical school loans. “Indentured servitude,” he quips.

While there, Heather worked as a nursing instructor at a branch campus of the University of New Mexico. “Albright played a large role in my experiences,” says Heather, who earned a nursing degree at the College. “What a privilege to teach classes and do clinical instruction to very motivated Anglo, Hispanic and American Indian students.”

When Fred’s three-year obligation was fulfilled, the couple moved back to Tampa, Fla., where he completed his residency in surgery at University of South Florida. Demonstrating a desire and talent for spine surgery, he was awarded the Rae R. Jacobs Memorial Spine Fellowship at the University of Kansas. The Hesses packed their bags once again, and headed to Kansas.

In 1990, near the end of his one-year spine fellowship, Fred accepted an orthopedic surgery position at Geisinger Medical Center. Twenty-five years later he’s still in Danville, where he’s the chief of spine surgery, specializing in pediatric spine deformity. As for the beautiful Salamawit, she’s healed, back home in Ethiopia and in college studying to be a nurse. “It’s truly a life-changing experience for these kids,” says Fred. “Our strength and motivation to do this is an outgrowth of our Christian faith—‘If you’ve been given much, much is required.’”

Feeling grateful, Fred adds, “It’s nice to be able to use the gifts God’s given me, and to do the things I do best, to help people that otherwise couldn’t be helped.”


Editor’s note: Professor Janet Gehres ’54 may get the credit for starting Fred Hess on his path to becoming a doctor, but the Albright Reporter gets the credit for his choice of colleges. Hess, who grew up in Florida playing football, read an article in his father’s (William Fred Hess ’55) College magazine, and that did it. Hess applied, was accepted and headed north to Reading without ever seeing the campus in person. He was a walk-on for the football team his freshman year and became a four-year letterman under storied Coach John Potsklan.

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