Helping Across the Globe

katarancic and patient
Julia Katarincic, MD, with a patient.

Julia Katarincic, MD, Travels to Honduras to Help Patients and Physicians

In a rapidly globalizing world, we are now able to connect with people halfway around the globe, sharing ideas and influences. Health care and medicine are no different. One Lifespan physician has taken a hands-on approach to this knowledge sharing, bringing her surgical expertise to patients in Honduras.

Julia Katarincic, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with the Lifespan Orthopedic Institute and University Orthopedics, specializing in hand and microvascular surgery. In the United States, Dr. Katarincic has seen her share of conditions and four years ago, she decided she wanted to bring her knowledge and skills to other parts of the world.

“I’ve always been interested in outreach,” Dr. Katarincic says. “And thanks to the support of my colleagues, I’m able to fit these travels into my practice.”

Dr. Katarincic is active with the Touching Hands Project, a program of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) and Health Volunteers Overseas. The project brings teams of hand surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and hand therapists to different countries that lack medical resources to treat patients with hand and arm conditions, deformities, and injuries. Dr. Katarincic travels overseas twice a year for two weeks total. While the Touching Hands Project brings volunteers to several countries, Dr. Katarincic has chosen to return to Honduras each year.

Orthopedic Surgeons Needed across the Globe

“Health care availability and access for patients is a major issue there,” says Dr. Katarincic. “There are only a handful of orthopedic surgeons.”

This year, Dr. Katarincic returned to Honduras in April and May, joining a team of physicians from across the United States to treat patients at Ruth Paz Burn and Pediatric Hospital in San Pedro Sula and Hospital Escuela Universitario in Tegucigalpa. The first day they arrived, the team saw nearly 180 patients. The physicians worked ceaselessly Monday to Friday, seeing around 75 cases per week. Each day started at 7 a.m. and, at times, ended well into the night.

“Friday nights could go until 10,” Dr. Katarincic says. “We always wanted to add that one last case to the day.”

“This is exactly why we went into medicine,” says Dr. Katarincic. “It’s a great opportunity to see different conditions, learn about a culture, connect with and educate local physicians.”

Dr. Katarincic treated young patients for a range of conditions including old fractures, trauma injuries, and congenital diseases – some that she’d not seen often in the United States, but were more common in Honduras.

“There were a lot of machete injuries and motorcycle accidents,” she notes.

Katarincic and team
Julia Katarincic, MD and her team in Honduras

Providing Education to Local Physicians in Honduras

When the team of medical experts weren’t in the operating room, they were immersing themselves in the culture of Honduras and learning more about their health care.

“We would visit local orphanages, go to local textile factories, educating the workers about hand safety, before going home, passing out, and going right back to the clinic in the morning,” Dr. Katarincic says.

Dr. Katarincic has paid a yearly visit to an orphanage for girls in Honduras. This year, she and the volunteers brought board games and spent the night playing them with the girls.

For Dr. Katarincic, this kind of global outreach is integral to the field of health care. Gaining such a unique first-hand experience can put a physician’s own practice into perspective. Taking this journey can remind doctors why they went into the field.

“This is exactly why we went into medicine,” says Dr. Katarincic. “It’s a great opportunity to see different conditions, learn about a culture, connect with and educate local physicians.”

Learning as Visitors to a New Country

During their time at the Ruth Paz Hospital, the volunteers certainly experienced a different side of health care that tested their expertise not only as doctors, but as visitors to a new country. Between difficulties communicating with the Spanish-speaking surgical staff to a lack of specialized instruments, the visit was not without its challenges. 

The things the physicians took for granted at their own practices – clean tools, sharp knives, dedicated surgical spaces, and even time – were notably absent, leading the team to rely more on their own experience and ingenuity.

While the team of volunteers certainly brought their expertise, training and research to Honduras, they would leave with lessons learned from the locals’ approach to medical treatment.

“They have a much less aggressive approach to surgery than some have in the United States,” says Dr. Katarincic. “They would say, ‘Let’s not put a plate in, let’s just cast it. It might not heal perfectly, but there’s less risk of infection and it’s much less invasive for the patient.’”

katarancic or team
Dr. Katarincic with her team in the operating room

Inspiring Colleagues and Patients at Home

Even back at home, these visits have proven to have a positive impact. Dr. Katarincic’s patients in the United States often find a sense of inspiration from hearing about her work in Honduras and the children she has helped.

“If ten years from now, the resident who came with me on this year’s trip is bringing their own group of residents back to Honduras, then I’ve done my job,” says Dr. Katarincic.

"My patients are very interested to hear about my volunteer work,” says Dr. Katarincic. “It helps put their own situation into perspective and helps them cope with it. They think, ‘If those kids can go through so much, so can I.’”

Dr. Katarincic is always thinking about and preparing the next generation of volunteers. Each visit, she brings with her a resident and fellow from Lifespan and encourages all young medical professionals at Lifespan to join the program or do similar volunteer work.

“If ten years from now, the resident who came with me on this year’s trip is bringing their own group of residents back to Honduras, then I’ve done my job,” says Dr. Katarincic.

Creating Memories Every Year

Returning to Honduras each year allows her to follow up with the patients she helped previously and to see how well they are doing, and how they have returned to their communities with full function and fuller lives.

She recalls one patient in particular who has remained in her memory over the years. A little girl was brought to the clinic with polydactyly, a condition in which a person has more than five digits on their hands or feet. The patient had an extremely enlarged pointer finger and thumb – nearly eight inches long – and was unable to use that hand for any basic tasks. Dr. Katarincic removed the enlarged digits and using the girl’s middle finger, reconstructed a thumb and pointer finger. The results spoke for themselves during her next visit to Honduras.

“The next time I saw her, she was grabbing a cookie, holding and drinking from a glass, using that hand,” says Dr. Katarincic, “standing there with milk and cookies and a huge smile.”

Learn more about the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute