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A Privilege to Serve
How teaching teams — led by one local specialist — are bringing emergency medicine and cardiac care to Belize and beyond.


Feb. 2018

Dr. Mark Bruce

Many physicians enter the medical profession because of a desire to improve the health and well-being of others. This desire may also figure in to why some physicians pursue volunteer work.

For Dr. Mark Bruce, an emergency medicine specialist, decades of volunteer work in various settings, from Indonesia to Belize, have provided him with a way to share his knowledge, expertise and love for his fellow man. “I think my motivation comes from the Bible verse ‘For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required,’” says Bruce, who practices at both local and regional health care systems. He is also the American College of  Emergency Physicians’ ambassador to Belize (formerly British Honduras) and Canada.

In recent years, Bruce has devoted much of his volunteer time to helping train an emergency medicine team at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, the primary hospital in Belize. He had been doing disaster relief work in Asia after the tsunami hit Indonesia. “I had a fair amount of experience in disaster medicine, and Belize is frequently in the path of hurricanes,” he says. “We responded to a request to set up an emergency medicine program. Until now, they had no emergency room (ER) physicians because of a lack of available training.”

Together with Bruce and Dr. Stephen Hargarten from Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, teaching teams from the U.S. and Canada, which include physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, are educating medical professionals in Belize. “All aspects of emergency medicine are included in the program. In each visit we’ve made over the last four to five years, we have covered the core content of emergency medicine,” Bruce says.

One of the essential elements of emergency medicine is cardiac care, Bruce continues. “Cardiac medicine is at the root of the emergency medicine specialty because chest pain is one of the top complaints of people who come to the emergency department,” he says. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., and the leading cause of death worldwide.

Because the Belize hospital has limited resources compared with those in the U.S., Bruce and some of the other physicians and U.S. hospitals pay for the trips and training out of their own funds. Nevertheless, Bruce and his colleagues are careful to avoid an attitude of “medical imperialism.” “We don’t have all the answers,” he says. “We need to learn about (the natives) and their culture too. This becomes more of a relationship-building exercise. Meaningful change happens through relationships, rather than just teaching.”

Why the focus on Belize? “Our son went on a teen mission trip to Belize one summer. He came back so excited about it. Our entire family, including my wife, who is a family practice physician, and all five of our kids went there and networked through the community. We found people we enjoyed being around and developed trusting relationships,” Bruce says.  Following that trip, Bruce and Hargarten began talking about a training program because they identified a critical need for emergency medicine specialists there.

What’s next for Bruce and the other volunteers? Preparing this core group for a board certification process. “Our ultimate goal is that the Belize team will be self-sufficient and eventually become a center of excellence. It’s several years off, but coming,” Bruce says. 

Bruce strongly believes in sharing one’s knowledge and skills through volunteer work. “We teach our children that it is a privilege

to serve. Some of us serve locally, and some in faraway places. It might put us outside of our comfort zone, but it can be very rewarding,” he says.


This story ran in the Feb. 2018  issue of: