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Creating Unbreakable Bonds

May 20, 2020 07:00AM ● By Med Magazine

This March, just as the attention of the world was turning to COVID-19, orthopaedic surgeon Steven J. Meyer, MD, of the CNOS Clinic in Dakota Dunes became the recipient of the 2020 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' Humanitarian Award. The award came just three months after his 51st medical mission trip to Tanzania as part of Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries (STEMM), the nonprofit organization he founded in 1997. STEMM is dedicated to bringing medical care and educational opportunities to the East African nation. Dr. Meyer spoke with us in April about the award, STEMM, Tanzania, and pivoting during the pandemic. 

 MED: Were you surprised to receive the Humanitarian Award?

SM: Well, yes. The previous 20-some recipients have all been icons of orthopaedics. People like my friend Larry Dorr, who has probably written more books on hip replacement than anyone. It is kind of like the Heisman Trophy. You expect that to athletes from Auburn or Ohio State and suddenly it goes to someone from some little community college. That's kind of how it feels.

MED: You have been travelling to Tanzania regularly since you established STEMM in 1997. How have things changed there since your first trip?

SM: When I went for the first time in 1996, they were sterilizing instruments with a hot plate and a cast iron pot. I was operating with makeshift instruments and going to the hardware store to get screws to put in people. Through our consistent efforts, eight years later, in that same hospital, I did the first hip replacement in Tanzania. Two years after that, we did the first knee replacement. The STEMM mission opened up a new avenue of high level ortho surgery for the entire country.

MED: Things have really blossomed in the region beyond just medical care thanks to STEMM. What are you most proud of?

SM: What makes me really happy is that, through the efforts of a lot of other people, orthopaedic surgery is now just a small part of STEMM. We also started the number one rated orphanage in Northern Tanzania with fifty orphans from a poor rural community growing up in family homes. We feed hot lunches to thousands of kids every day and we have sent 10 thousand kids to high school and university. We have built roads and buildings and teacher housing. We built a modern birthing center with oxygen and fetal monitors. There is really no area of society that STEMM hasn't touched in some way.

MED: What compelled you to start this work and how do you think it has impacted you and your family?

SM: What compelled me initially was the fact that I look around and I see the dichotomy. In America, we have so much and appreciate so little. Tanzanians have so little and appreciate so much. It has been such a joy to work alongside and develop relationships with people who truly understand what it means to live a life of love and service. Another big blessing for me has been the opportunity to take my kids, one of whom is now in college and two in high school. They have each been to Tanzania eight times. They don't complain about things as much as most Western kids. It has given all of us a very different perspective. 

MED: Do you think your patients in Sioux City have been impacted by your mission work?

SM: I think my work in Africa has given me a greater sense of empathy and compassion for people, in general. It has also given me the opportunity to offer my patients a window into a greater world perspective. So many of my patients know about the work we do and they know what our mission is about. So it opens up opportunities for them, too. Of all the places in the world, this is not necessarily where you would expect a phenomenal mission to be born. We are a different culture, a different color, mostly blue collar. But people here have demonstrated a great heart for this mission. 

MED: What role has CNOS played in this work?

SM: CNOS has been a huge part. They have been so supportive, financially, logistically, and through encouragement. I am blessed to have world class partners who are at the top of their game. They have afforded me the opportunity to do this by taking call when I am away and sometimes more than that. In 2012, I was gone for three months and my partners at CNOS picked up my practice and took care of it. 

MED: Switching gears for a moment, any thoughts on how things have had to change at CNOS over the last few months?

SM: CNOS has long been on the leading edge of technology. We had telemedicine in place within a couple of days of realizing that we had to implement social distancing. We never had a reason to have this in place before, but as soon as we needed it, we had it. Our group is incredibly innovative and creative. We tend to be ahead of the curve, as long as the science shows there could be a benefit for our patients. We were on the forefront of same day hip and knee replacements five or six year ago, before a lot of people were even talking about it. 

MED: What is next for STEMM?

SM: We have recently started doing outreach clinics in some of the Masai villages, providing things like antibiotics and blood pressure medicine. Next, we would like to partner with US colleges and agribusinesses to build an agricultural technology training center. As far as orthopaedics goes, our dream is to find enough orthopaedic surgeons to do trips with STEMM that we can establish centers of orthopaedic excellence throughout the country. There is a huge pent up demand for people to do something meaningful and impactful. Giving them a place to do that could be an opportunity for us to grow.