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A ‘reluctant honoree’ receives his due at last

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - May June


Endowment in honor of surgeon enables students to treat disadvantaged

The late Gustaf E. Lindskog, M.D., who chaired the medical school’s Department of Surgery from 1948 to 1966, deflected recognition at what seemed like every turning point in his career. A pioneer in thoracic surgery and a participant in the development of several important medical procedures that arose in the twentieth century, including chemotherapy and the clinical application of penicillin, Lindskog nonetheless remained an ever-reluctant honoree.

According to Andrew J. Graham, M.D., associate clinical professor of surgery, and John E. Fenn, M.D., clinical professor of surgery—both Lindskog trainees—when the idea of commissioning a portrait of Lindskog was tossed around, Lindskog not only issued a resounding no, but by way of explanation, trudged to a certain closet where portraits of esteemed medical school professors lay stashed away, hidden and unappreciated. Superficial honors were not his cup of tea. “We had to find something appropriate to keep his memory alive,” says Graham, president of the Yale Surgical Society (YSS), a fellowship of graduates and faculty of Yale School of Medicine’s surgical training program founded in 1994.

Fenn, in his roles as YSS treasurer and faculty advisor to first- and second-year students in the Yale Surgical Interest Group, conceived the idea of support to students at the School of Medicine to travel abroad to developing countries to perform much-needed surgery. Graham believed the initiative was something that would have appealed to Lindskog’s sense of propriety and his longstanding interest in helping the disadvantaged. Lindskog’s son, Carl W. Lindskog, of Woodbridge, Conn., heartily agreed, and the Lindskog International Travel Award was born.

The award affords medical students at Yale with an opportunity unlike any currently offered by any other medical school in the United States. Through the endowment, students receive stipends that make it possible for them to travel to other countries to provide medical services under the tutelage of their Yale professors and instructors.

This year, the two winners of the prize were fourth-year medical students Matthew McRae and Yuen-Jong Liu. Both traveled abroad in February, McRae to Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, and Liu to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. For nine days McRae and a team that included School of Medicine faculty members Deepak Narayan, M.D., M.B.B.S., associate professor of surgery, and Mark H. Weinstein, M.D., assistant clinical professor of surgery, treated cleft lips and palates, repaired congenital hand deformities, and managed the care of burns. Jong, part of a team led by Associate Professor of Surgery J. Grant Thomson, M.D., performed a wide variety of procedures, including carpal tunnel releases, skin grafts, bone settings, bone fusions, and conjoined finger releases.

Jong realized on arriving in San Pedro Sula that outdated hospital equipment and otherwise limited resources would require some creative thinking. “There was an intellectual challenge in trying to see what was the most you could get out of your limited supplies. We were a little bit less comfortable when sitting at the operating tables, but they all still functioned well,” he explains. “We had to approach some of the cases differently.

For example, we didn’t have Carms, which we use for live radiological imaging. So we had to do more anatomical exploration or use more hands-on, more old-fashioned traditional techniques.”

In contrast, the operating room facilities at Sappasithiprasong Hospital, where McRae and his team worked, were up to modern standards, McRae says. But the amount of unmet need there was palpable. “Children would be in bed, three rows of beds lined up, with their parents staying right next to the beds,” he says. “It was an absolute jam of people, some of them there for over a week.”

The flight of many of the hospital’s surgeons from Ubon Ratchathani to Bangkok means that the hospital is severely understaffed, says McRae. Sappasithiprasong serves a population of 5 million, but only two plastic surgeons were on staff when McRae arrived in February.

“There was a huge number of trauma cases and they’d never be able to get to these kids,” he says. “By operating on these kids and by making them look more normal, it allows them to integrate in society in a way that they just wouldn’t be able to do without these operations. You’d bring these kids out and their parents would be there in tears, incredibly grateful. It was an amazing, heartwarming experience.”

Although the award endowment is in its infancy, Fenn and Graham are optimistic about the Lindskog Award’s future. It is a significant part of the total YSS endowment, and “as the endowment grows, we will be able to do more,” says Graham.

For Fenn and Graham, the Lindskog Award not only offers Yale medical students an unparalleled opportunity, but also honors a man whose memory had lived on in the minds of his trainees but had gone publicly unrecognized.

“This is gratifying for me, personally, to see these students rewarded this way. It’s also gratifying that we can honor Dr. Lindskog,” says Fenn.