Carl Unsicker, MD, F.A.C.S.
Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon
Perhaps he is unaware of it, but Carl Unsicker, M.D., F.A. C.S, shares a philosophy with the famous British politician, Sir Winston Churchill, who said, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."
For the past 10 years, Dr. Unsicker, a board certified orthopedic surgeon, has generously given of his time and skills to children and adults in the impoverished countries of Africa, where high–quality healthcare is often not readily available. He continues to volunteer at a small hospital in Tanzania for several months every year, helping patients walk without pain or embarrassment by surgically repairing clubfeet, bowlegs and knock–knees.
Dr. Unsicker retired from the full–time practice of orthopedic surgery in 1998. Today, however, it would be an understatement to classify him as even "semi–retired." For starters, he is a medical director of one of the largest temporary physician–staffing firms in the United States, VISTA Staffing Solutions. Dr. Unsicker also continues to practice, but as a locum tenens physician. "The flexibility of this lifestyle affords me the time to pursue other interests, like volunteering in Africa every year," he explains.
Shortly after Dr. Unsicker "retired," a colleague from Alaska told him about a well–structured volunteer program developed by Orthopaedic Overseas. He and his wife, Linda, were intrigued with the idea of traveling to an exotic country and expanding the scope of their medical volunteer work. They kicked–off the year 2000 by taking their first trip to Umtata, a part of the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa.
Since their initial expedition, Dr. Unsicker and Linda have traveled to Africa twice annually, each time staying for a period of several months. In addition to Umtata, they went to northwest Tanzania where he volunteered at the Bugando Medical Centre, a regional government hospital in the city of Mwanza. One of the poorest nations in the world, Tanzania has a struggling economy and the majority of its hospitals are poorly staffed and ill equipped.
While in Mwanza, the good doctor and his wife found that they were often not as busy or involved as they liked to be. Therefore, they quickly accepted an invitation from a local physician to visit a smaller hospital in Sengerema, one of eight districts that make up the Mwanza Region of Tanzania. In a remote location and severely under–funded, the Sengerema Hospital could provide the services of an orthopedic surgeon for only two weeks out of every year. The Unsickers were thrilled to experience more productivity in a weekend at Sengerema than they had during an entire month at the larger hospital.
Linda is a certified orthopedic technologist who shares his devotion to volunteering. She travels with him to Africa, keeps him organized, and routinely manages approximately 40–50 patients who are waiting for their turn in the surgery. In her "spare" time, Linda helps out in the community center or at the schools. He reports, "She speaks Swahili better than I do and always finds something to keep her busy, whether it is assisting me in the operating room or doing laundry for the hospital." Dr. Unsicker also rolls up his sleeves for whatever chores need to be done and has been known to scrub, rinse and hang sheets up to dry.
The Unsickers have returned to the smaller hospital in Sengerema as independent volunteers twice yearly for the past five years. He says that they don't go there to save the world, "Taking care of one child at a time is enough for us." Dr. Unsicker also talks about the satisfaction of seeing how well the kids are doing during follow–up visits. He observes, "This is probably what keeps us going back as much as anything." They plan to return to Africa for another four to seven years.
"Working in an under–privileged country where people have so little gives you a real appreciation for the simpler things in life," he says. When he and his wife are at home in the United States, they find that they no longer "sweat the small stuff." For example, when a contractor inadvertently took down a power line while removing some trees on their property, they were left without electricity. Much to the contractor's relief, the situation left the couple unfazed. Dr. Unsicker explained, "We were quite used to it! Water and power supplies are inconsistent in Tanzania and are more often off than on."
Dr. Unsicker got his start in medicine in a five–year rotating internship and residency at the US Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia. He recalls, "Every time I rotated through a new specialty, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do!'" Ultimately, orthopedic surgery won out because it most closely resembled general practice, allowing him to care for all age groups from children to the elderly.
For the next 19 years, he practiced in a variety of diverse medical facilities in North Carolina, Utah, and Alaska. While still practicing full–time at a Utah–based health maintenance organization (HMO) in 1992, Dr. Unsicker accepted a position as a medical director at VISTA. He also partnered with the firm and began accepting locum tenens assignments, primarily in Alaska where he regularly filled in for a surgeon in Juneau. Truly a "locum tenens," Dr. Unsicker took care of his colleague's horses too!
In 1994, the traveling doctor and his wife couldn't resist a land known as a premier destination for unforgettable adventures, so they moved to Alaska. Dr. Unsicker continues to practice as a temporary physician in diverse medical settings in New Mexico, Iowa, Utah, and throughout Alaska. He says, "I enjoy the variety of meeting different people and learning how other medical systems function. The schedulers match assignments to my interests and skills," he explains. "They do their best to accommodate me; I choose when, where and how often I want to work."
As a result of their extensive travels, the Unsickers have many stories to share about camping, skiing, and hiking adventures in deserts, mountains, national forests, and along the Pacific coastline.
As a medical director, he works with the recruiting, scheduling, credentials review, and quality assurance⁄risk management teams at VISTA to educate and set standards for the quality of physicians that the company recruits and places. He is a resource for locum tenens physicians in the field, participates in the company's peer review process, and serves as an ambassador of sorts. "A locum tenens practice is a great choice for physicians who like to travel and explore with their spouses," Dr. Unsicker notes. "If they are flexible and have the characteristics that fit a locum tenens lifestyle, it can make a huge difference in how satisfied they are with their career choice."
Bruce B. McDonald, MD
Board Certified General Surgeon and Photographer
After 25 years of practice in Austin, Texas, Bruce B. McDonald, M.D., closed his surgical practice and joined the locum tenens ranks. He is particularly interested in working in underserved areas of the United States.
In addition to his medical career and his accomplishments as a mountaineer, skier, scuba diver, windsurfer, sailor, rock climber and world traveler, Bruce McDonald is a photographer. He sent VISTA these photos from a recent assignment in Shiprock, NM. This is definitely a situation in which pictures speak louder than words.
Ten Mile Mesa The view from the top of Ten Mile Mesa, a popular hiking, biking, and sunset-watching spot for locum tenens physicians working in the area. The Shiprock can be seen in the distance near the horizon.
You can see more of Dr. McDonald's photography at www.mcdonaldphoto.com. He donates all proceeds of his photography business to medical charities and medical missions.
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