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What I’ve Learned: Latina Doctor’s Mission Trips Change Kids’ Lives

NAME: Madelyn Milagros Stazzone

AGE: 51

HERITAGE: Puerto Rican-American

HOMETOWN: Born and raised in New York City, NY now residing in St. Louis, Missouri

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Pediatric radiologist and humanitarian

Dr. Madelyn M. Stazzone is a co-founder of the Pediatric Orthopedic Project (POP). and serves as its President and Executive Director. She co-founded the organization with her husband, Dr. Enrico Stazzone, an orthopedic surgeon. After their first surgical mission trip to the children’s hospital in Santiago, Dominican Republic in 2012, POP became a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization and in that time Dr. Stazzone has led and planned four annual mission trips to Santiago for a volunteer group of doctors, nurses and physician assistants.

Your nonprofit, Pediatric Orthopedic Project, is going to Santiago, Dominican Republic in March for the fifth time, to add on to your 94 success stories of providing free surgery to impoverished children to correct their scoliosis. How did you get involved in this work?

My husband’s partner had been doing mission work in the Dominican Republic for almost 20 years for adults when he was approached by two surgeons asking about a pediatric orthopedic surgeon interested in helping children in Santiago, Dominican Republic. My husband and I took a trip over there and we kind of explored the opportunity, looked at the hospital conditions to see if we could make it work. Honestly I thought it would be a one-time deal because the challenges are so many over there –- the public hospitals are funded by the government in a system where so few resources trickle down to the poor. The setting was so minimalist that even pain medications were scarce and surgery under those conditions is very scary.

Audrey Cabrera, a patient who had surgery to treat her scoliosis.
Photo of 15-year-old Audrey Cabrera, a patient who had surgery to treat her scoliosis. Maddy Stazzone

But we went. On our first trip in 2012 we experienced all sorts of incredible challenges. At one point all our luggage, which contained our surgical supplies, was lost, then during the first few operations the lights went out and we quickly found out that the anesthesia machine was not hooked up to the generator. As we worked on the last patient the lights went out again and the generator died.

At the end of the first day, three of the participants came up to me and said, “Maddy, I think we need to abort this, it’s just too hard.” I’m used to struggles but there was also fear because you always take a vow in medicine to not hurt patients. Still, as a mother, I looked at all the mothers who had gotten their hopes up for their children to get this surgery so they could have a better life and we persevered because we had a group of stellar people who were motivated to do this.

The karma changed the next day. We were tired but we were running on the adrenaline and we made it through that second day – we were beating it, we were clearing the obstacles and we were hooked.

Why was the experience so transformational for you that you began the nonprofit and committed to making this an annual trip?

In medicine, you don’t usually see such huge dramatic transformations. But in the Dominican Republic, culturally, if you have any physical deformity the already-low chances to move up in society get even worse. And, in fact, some cases of scoliosis can be so severe that the progression can cost the life. Other factors are that the incidence of this type of deformity tends to be higher in the girls and then they are no longer considered marriage material. Oftentimes we see a child with a deformity abandoned by parents. It’s so overwhelmingly sad for me as a mom to see that.

But then, when we have our reunion with our past patients, we see these kids who were so dejected when they initially came to us and then they come back with a new appearance and self-assurance. It’s the most positive thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.

Plus, it’s not been life-altering for just me. There are many, many stories of people hooked on the gratifying feeling of making a tangible difference in a child’s life. Everyone from the nurses to the technologists who travel with us and even the hospitals and medical manufacturers who provide our basic supplies, equipment and the rods and screws that go into these kids’ backs get so involved, so pumped for the work we do. It’s amazing.

Also, it’s amazing for the doctors and the nurses on the island – every time we go, we equip them with the training to care for these kids and their special needs and, in fact, they have cared directly for 60 of the children we’ve helped since we started. This is a project that has succeeded because of people who are motivated to do good for humanity.

Before and after back surgery
Photo of a Audrey Cabrera, a 15-year-old scoliosis patient, before her surgery (L) and photo after surgery (R). Maddy Stazzone

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I did not know exactly where I was headed, but I remember being 5 years old and looking around me and saying, “I’m going to do better for myself and do better for my kids.” I grew up in the projects of Manhattan, on the lower East Side. My parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico in the 50’s and were very poor, they had done the best they could getting me a good education and I knew I was going places, but didn’t know where. My father wanted me to be an accountant so I thought that was what I was going to do.

How did you get into medicine? Did you have good support from your school?

I always had an internal drive to want to be the best. I’ve always been a perfectionist in many ways so I did very well in school. When I was in high school I remember the first quarter of my freshman year my homeroom teacher looked at my grades and said, “Holy moly, look at these grades! If you’re not going to college, I don’t know who would.”

As I got closer to college, I had done very, very well in biology and our college counselor Sister Tomasina told me, 'You know, if you get a good SAT score there’s this scholarship at St. John’s' - so I took the SAT. I took it 3 times – and I finally got above the 1100 necessary for me to be eligible for that scholarship and I was able to get a full ride to St. John’s University. That was a godsend for me; that allowed me to just move forward and from there I went to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

x-ray, scoliosis
An x-ray taken of a Audrey Cabrera, a 15-year-old patient with scoliosis, before her surgery. Maddy Stazzone / Maddy Stazzone

How did you come to decide on the specialty of pediatric radiology?

Well, I did a residency internship in pediatrics and I knew I wanted to work with children, but I also had always felt the internal struggle between excelling in my career and being the traditional Latina woman and staying home with my kids. I wanted four kids and by God’s grace I have four, but always there was this internal battle because I knew I had the desire to stay home with my kids. So even though my heart was in pediatrics I realized very early on that it would be very hard to establish that career path, pull away to stay home with the kids for a time and then be able to come back to it. So I focused on imaging and figured that the only way I could reconcile being a radiologist was if I could be pediatric radiologist.

How can people tap into some of the magic that results from doing good for humanity?

Studies show that a person feels truly accomplished when they are giving to others – that’s when they feel they have arrived. Anyone can give of themselves, whether through donations or service. Just look for what speaks to you - whether it be helping abused animals, the poor, children, elderly people - just try it and see what happens. I guarantee that once you find the thing you love giving to, you will get more out of it than what you give. We all come out of these experiences saying, “Wow!”

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda

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