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St. Louis-based International Surgery Organization Continues to Expand Service

Dr. Eltahir delivers his presentation on global surgery at SAGES 2024.

Resident Ahmed Eltahir, MD has collaborated with Surgical Outreach for the Americas (SOfA) since 2022 during the lab years of his residency. His experience with SOfA has taken him overseas twice, and inspired an abstract, which was accepted for a podium presentation at the annual Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) 2024 meeting. 

SOfA—Surgical Outreach for the Americas, a St. Louis-based non-profit organization embarks on its 15th year, providing essential care to underserved communities across the western hemisphere. The organization has performed over two thousand surgical procedures, alleviating disease burden in underserved regions of Central American and Caribbean nations. 

In 2008, after a medical mission trip to Guatemala, Peggy Frisella, past administrator of Washington University Institute for Surgical Education (WISE), casually spoke with then-chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery, Brent Matthews, MD, which sparked the idea that would eventually become the non-profit. “I was disillusioned by the lack of follow-up care for patients after medical missions, and our conversation was kind of my call to action,” says Frisella.

“We had the idea of establishing a continuous after-care program,” says Frisella, “which is where the notion came from.” In January 2009, SOfA completed their site visit to the Dominican Republic. Frisella and the team applied for a grant with the BJC foundation. “We were granted $20,000 to get off the ground,” says Frisella.

While the foundation’s initial grant funded the first trip, the fledgling organization could not be funded in perpetuity through the foundation. 

“After a few years, we were informed that the BJC Foundation would no longer be able to support our work, because they would be redirecting their efforts to support more local projects, but their support planted the seed that motivated me to continue to pursue this outreach,” Frisella explains. After meeting with advisors at Washington University Law School, they formed a 501c3 in 2012. As a 501c3, SOfA is able to fundraise. This status certifies that donations are tax deductible for donors.

Through fundraising and volunteer efforts, SOfA maintains stable operations, with partnership from multidisciplinary staff from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. 

The SOfA team consists of surgeons, surgery residents, anesthesia providers, perioperative nursing, pediatric critical care, sterile processing technicians, interpreters and a team coordinator. The team must also partner with local public health centers, including the CMO, internal medicine, general surgery, nursing, rural health coordinators and surgical training programs.

Resident SOfA Experience

General surgery resident Eltahir’s first mission with SOfA was to Dominican Republic. His second trip was to El Salvador. After two trips doing surgical outreach, Eltahir decided to put together an abstract discussing the importance of work such as SOfA provides to underserved communities. 

“I was mostly involved in hernia repairs, because it is one of the most common needs for populations that do more physical labor,” says Eltahir. Other than various kinds of hernia repairs, he focused on minor urologic surgeries and benign tumor removals.

“We get to see a lot of things that we might not get to experience hands-on as trainees, so it is exciting to share some of my experiences,” says Eltahir. “But our partnerships with the care providers on location is essential for a continued success, and I think it’s important to communicate this,” he adds.

Eltahir explains that among his interests as a surgeon, providing access to underserved communities ranks highly for him.

After his experience, Eltahir compiled participation and what he observed into an abstract, which was accepted for a podium presentation at SAGES 2024.

“I discuss my own experiences and observations, and outline services that we are able to provide,” says Eltahir. His abstract highlights the level of involvement SOfA staff undertakes to maintain aftercare partnerships.

“There’s only so much we can do on short term trips,” he adds, “so SOfA has done a great job with community outreach, partnering with local hospitals in those countries and providing them with resources that they need to continue serving the communities that require attention.”

SAGES 2024 was April 17-20 in Cleveland, Ohio. Eltahir’s presentation on his experience working with SOfA was received with praise. The hope is that by presenting this information to the national surgeon community, further partnerships may be established.

Dr. Eltahir and Peggy Frisella at SAGES 2024

The Future of Global Surgery

As of January of 2024, a laparoscopic program has now begun, with local governmental support for minimally invasive surgery residents at the public hospital in El Salvador, thanks in part to support from SAGES. The non-profit seeks to continue expanding access to surgery with partnership from Washington University trainees, while providing a platform for global surgery to new generations of surgeons.

“Global surgery is less accessible than global medicine in general, because there are more barriers to getting your foot in the door, so I feel lucky to have had access to an organization, founded by one of our own to help me provide essential care beyond our borders,” says Eltahir.

SOfA made its inaugural trip to Belize in April 2024 after a prolonged hiatus due to COVID delays. So much success was achieved during this trip to an impoverished area in the Toledo district in southern Belize that we will be returning in early 2025 to continue the work we started.

Additionally, after a site visit to the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Frisella reports that there is a strong likelihood of services being extended there. This would expand SOfA’s reach to five different sites in total.

Now with more sustained funding through fundraising and donations, SOfA can offer surgical services and education to a broader swath of underserved locations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Frisella hopes to continue to expand SOfA’s reach to provide essential surgical services, while continuing to provide an opportunity for trainees to participate in an impactful surgical experience.