Local surgeon helps out in Southeast Asia

Every January, Dr. Robert Aptekar packs up 10 artificial hips and heads for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he spends a week at a charity hospital performing surgery and training other surgeons and medical staff.

“I guess this is just part of my DNA,” Aptekar said. “My parents were always involved in charitable programs and my father, a dentist, went to Guatemala 35 years ago.”

Dr. Ou Cheng Ngiep (left) is learning about implant surgery from Dr. Robert Aptekar (right) photos/susan weiss

Aptekar, an orthopedic surgeon for almost 40 years, operates the Arthritis & Orthopedic Medical Clinic in Los Gatos. He and his wife, Judy, live in Los Altos Hills, where they belong to Congrega-tion Beth Am. They have three grown daughters and five grandchildren.

Aptekar recently made his sixth trip to the Children’s Surgical Centre in Cambodia. The charity hospital, which also offers adults and children ophthalmic care and ear, nose and throat specialists, works with Watsi.org, a crowd-funding organization based in San Francisco. Aptekar said the hospital is one of the biggest recipients of Watsi funding, receiving up to $30,000 a month to care for patients.

“Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with maybe 30 orthopedic surgeons for 15 million people,” Aptekar said. “The people we operate on come from all over the country, sometimes after a three-day bus ride, and 40 or 50 people may show up every day.” Local hospitals, he said, are “very Spartan, with reasonably clean facilities and equipment and instruments that are a generation old.”

The personal rewards for healing the world one new hip joint at a time are many, but Aptekar emphasized that for him, the primary reward is the dramatic difference he and other surgeons at the hospital make in the lives of the Cambodian people.

Aptekar visits a patient in Cambodia.

“Most of the people we take care of are people who have neglected trauma,” he said. “Most often, if they break a hip, they don’t get adequate treatment. Farmers and others in the provinces may receive treatment from a village doctor or a shaman, which in some cases amounts to just bed rest. The straightforward treatment we have in this country is not provided there.”

Two years ago San Francisco photographer Susan Weiss accompanied Aptekar to Phnom Penh to document his work. The two spoke about the trip earlier this year at the Commonwealth Club, where Weiss displayed some of her photos. Previously, Weiss created “Service Unquestioned,” a series of photos of military families. (See susanweissart.com) The photos from Cambodia are the first installment of a new series called “Humanity in the Modern World.”

“I’ve known Bob since high school in Detroit, and I knew he did these trips, so I asked if I could come along,” Weiss said. “I had been to Cambodia before, though I had not photographed surgery. And suddenly, there I was on day one, in the surgical quarters. It was primitive, but I was fine.”

Susan Weiss

The head of the hospital also asked Weiss to videotape surgeries for training purposes. “It was interesting to see the people, many very devout Buddhists, and to see their acceptance of their situation,” Weiss said. “Some would come in first thing in the morning for a diagnosis and learn that they faced an amputation, and passively accept that.”

Last week Weiss returned from a trip to Moldova with a group of dentists who worked on orphans and the elderly. The Greensboro Jewish Federation in North Carolina was the trip’s sponsor. “This trip also fit into my ‘Human-ity in the Modern World’ project, which is about people giving up their time and making an effort to help other people,” Weiss said.

In addition to his volunteer medical work, Aptekar also gives back to the local Jewish community. He has been a supporter of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco since its inception and is a former board member of the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School and Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Aptekar’s first trip overseas to donate his professional time and skills was 10 years ago, when he went to Nicaragua with Operation Rainbow, a volunteer medical mission program. He also has worked with the program Orthopedics Overseas, and may sign up for another tour in the future.

The artificial hips Aptekar uses are donated by the nonprofit AmeriCares, and Aptekar said he is working to secure donations of newer surgical instruments for his next visit.

“This work makes me feel good,” Aptekar said. “People who come in barely standing can walk after surgery, and that is a relief.”


Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.