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news News Friday, October 2, 2020 Friday, October 2, 2020 9:06 AM - Friday, October 2, 2020 9:06 AM

Going the distance

Teen from St. Lucia showing what Shriners Hospitals’ global effort can accomplish

Going the distance

Narshare and her son Kareem are a long way from home.

She pulls a sweatshirt more tightly around her shoulders as she watches her 18-year-old grind through physical therapy 12 days after major surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis. He casts aside his walker and uses crutches to slowly ascend and descend a set of three stairs.

It was 65 degrees outside, cold for two people from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Having exchanged saints – Lucia for Louis – for the next six months, the two are adapting to life in the United States while Kareem undergoes treatment for Blount’s disease, a problem with the growth plates around the knees that causes severe bowing of the lower legs.

Kareem’s journey began when Shriners Hospitals physician J. Eric Gordon, M.D., met him at Milton Cato Memorial Hospital on the nearby island of St. Vincent. For more than a decade, Dr. Gordon has been using his time off to travel to the Caribbean to help children such as Kareem in conjunction with the World Pediatric Project.

“When most people think of the Caribbean, they think of cruise ships and white sand beaches, but the reality for the locals can be very different,” Dr. Gordon said. “There just isn’t the medical specialization to treat some of the common conditions you see there.”

Dr. Gordon and fellow Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis physicians Mark Miller, M.D., and Brian Kelly, M.D., are part of the effort to change that. The typical trip has them fly in on Saturday, see anywhere from 50 to 150 patients each on Sunday, and perform somewhere between 20 and 40 surgeries before flying home the following Saturday. All the while, they are teaching local doctors how to diagnose and address the issues they are treating. “Basically, my goal is to work myself out of a job down there,” Dr. Gordon said.

Despite those education efforts, some cases are so severe that the World Pediatric Project arranges for the child and a parent to stay with a host family in the United States for continued care. Such was the situation for Kareem, whose initial two surgeries were performed in St. Vincent by Dr. Gordon and whose follow-up procedures and physical therapy are being done in St. Louis. 

This transition can lead to some culture shock – such as colder temperatures and odd food. Shriners Hospitals and the World Pediatric Project might not be able to help with the weather, but they do help visitors find the right spices to make food taste more like home.

Kareem had his first surgery in the United States on Sept. 2. More will follow. With both his legs in frames, he is proving to be a warrior who is surprising even long-tenured physical therapists. “That kid is tough,” said Erica Morrison, one of Kareem’s physical therapists. “He’s doing things at this point that we definitely wouldn’t have expected him to be able to do.”

That kind of toughness and commitment is common in the international patients Dr. Gordon has seen. “A lot of international kids realize that if they don’t take advantage of this opportunity, it might not come around again,” he said.

Kareem’s commitment began even before his first surgery in St. Vincent’s. He lost 50 pounds to meet the weight requirement for him to have his procedure.

“I always say to him that he’s a special boy,” Narshare said. “I wouldn’t be able to go through the ups and downs like he does. I look up to him for his strength.”

She sees her son as perfectly born and as someone who will serve as an inspiration to others when he returns home. “God made him the way he is for a reason. When a person watches him, they might say he won’t be able to achieve,” she said. “I have no doubt, though: He will achieve.”

The medical staff at Shriners Hospitals is doing its part to ensure that. And Dr. Gordon’s commitment to the Caribbean and patients like Kareem remains strong. “International medicine will always be an interest of mine,” he said. “Kids are kids, whether they’re from Missouri or Zimbabwe. It’s an area where there are needs that aren’t being met.”

Narshare sees that kind of commitment throughout the staff of Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis. “It’s so heart-warming,” she said. “God has created them to take care of children the way they’re supposed to be treated, regardless of where they are from. I wish everywhere was like this.”