Rx for transforming lives of Lithuanians

Caring for infant with cleft lip disorder during recent mission are Cleveland doctors, from left, Ed Fine, Paul Bertin and Steve Ditto.

Cleveland MDs provide free medical care, training to residents of Klaipeda.

By ARLENE FINE Staff Reporter

Show Dr. Edward Fine a piece of caraway cheese and the first word that comes to his mind is "Klaipeda."

Fine was frequently given generous chunks of the savory homemade cheese as payment for medical services he and six other Cleveland area physicians provided to patients in the small Lithuanian city of Klaipeda this past June.

The medical team was there as part of the Cleveland-based Partnership in Hope Medical Mission. This is an organization founded nine years ago by Dr. Gerald Goldberg, interim dean of Case Western Reserve University Medical School, and Dr. Gintautas Sabataitis, psychologist, to provide pro bono medical assistance at the small but vital Lithuanian hospital.

"Our mission is to offer medical services to patients and professional training and education to the local Lithuanian health care providers," says Goldberg. "Our hope is that eventually we will do our job so well our organization will be put out of business."

Klaipeda, a sister city to members of the Cleveland Lithuanian community, is located on the western coast of a country that was formerly part of the USSR. It was chosen because the physicians there expressed a willingness to have the Cleveland medical team work with them.

Along with Fine, a staff member of the otolaryngology and communicative disorders department of the Cleveland Clinic, and Goldberg, the group that traveled to Klaipeda for two weeks this year included: Dr. Paul Bertin, oral surgeon; Dr. Steve Ditto (Lakewood Hospital) and Dr. Susan Sweda (Metrohealth Medical Center), anesthesiologists; Dr. David Stepnick, (University Hospital), ENT surgeon; two nurses, Cathy Dobie (UH) and Maria Dunderman (UH); and Dona Cipkus, translator.

Hardly a pleasure trip, the Cleveland medical team dines modestly on simple ethnic foods and stays at local hotels. "The best that can be said about our lodgings is they are warm and dry and have hot showers," says Fine. Each morning the group piles into a minivan that picks them up and takes them to the Klaipeda Hospital.

As this was Fine's fourth visit to Klaipeda, he was eager to see his patients and continue the work he had been doing there during his past visits. With a specialty in otolaryngology and communicative disorders, the Beachwood resident has treated a number of Lithuanian patients of all ages who suffer from disfiguring cleft palate or cleft lip disorders and ear, nose and throat problems.

Each year, he says, he is gratified to see how his team's surgical techniques have corrected and repaired facial abnormalities. "Our modern plastic surgical techniques have totally changed lives. We have given these people a second chance."

On his first visit to Klaipeda, Fine says he was amazed at the antiquated conditions and out-dated equipment he found in the hospital. "Many of the patients had little confidence in the Russian- schooled local doctors who were trained in the old style of medicine and were using equipment that was often 50 years old," he says.

As he makes repeated visits to Klaipeda, Fine notes the steady improvement in medical care provided by the hospital staff. He credits this to the combination of the Cleveland team's yearly visits and to the ongoing monthly teleconferences that Partners in Hope have with their Klaipeda colleagues.

Once a month, the Cleveland medical team, usually composed of three doctors and two anesthesiologists, meet in Goldberg's conference room and flip on the TV. Within minutes they are connected via satellite with their Lithuanian "brothers," which is what the Klaipeda doctors call their Cleveland colleagues.

The Lithuanian doctors go over their troubling cases with the American team. They present their patient's history, show x-rays and give test results. When possible, the patients are present and examined in front of the TV monitor so the Cleveland doctors can help with the diagnosis and treatment.

"This works very well, because when they are not sure how to handle a particular case, we immediately give directions on what to do," says Fine. Often when the team makes their yearly visit they follow up on the cases presented at the medical teleconferences.

Along with their medical expertise the Cleveland doctors bring donated supplies from the Cleveland Clinic Health System and University Hospitals. These include operating room tables and lights, small instruments and computers.

Over the years a number of the Partners in Hope team members have been Jewish. Fine says during his visits he has not encountered any antiSemitism. "That is probably because they don't know that I am Jewish, or else they have never met anyone of my religion because the Jews of Klaipeda were virtually wiped out during WWII."

Funding for Partners in Hope comes from private donations. All the physicians and other members of the medical team pay their own travel expenses.

"It just feels right doing this," says Fine, 49, who plans to continue his active involvement. "We are all performing a mitzvah, whether they know to call it that or not."

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