When Dr. Zackary Gangwer told patients he'd be gone this week, one of the responses he got was, “So you're going on vacation?”
His response: "Not quite."
The podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon with Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk did not spend his week lounging on a beach somewhere. Instead, he spent the time volunteering in Bolivia — a country in the central part of South America — as a part of Operation Rainbow.
Operation Rainbow is a nonprofit organization dedicated to performing free orthopedic surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who don’t have access to related medical procedures or equipment.
As one of the physicians on this recent trip, Gangwer worked from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. for five days performing surgeries for people in need.
He left on Friday, July 14 and returns Sunday so he can be back in his office in Norfolk at 9 a.m. on Monday.
"I would rather do this than go on any vacation, honestly," Gangwer said. "But it's work. It's morning to night five days in a row."
It's this type of work, though, that partially pushed Gangwer to go into medicine.
His interest in the field was first sparked when he acted as a translator for a group of physicians on a mission trip in Brazil. Then during his residency in Oakland, Calif., he was introduced to Operation Rainbow when he was invited to go on one of its volunteer trips to Peru.
That showed Gangwer the importance of the services Operation Rainbow provides.
"These children, that's why we do it," Gangwer said. "They have these deformities and these things they're born with and they're stigmatized."
While in Bolivia, Gangwer mainly did surgeries on clubfeet, a congenital deformity that can be treated with casting if caught early. In the United States, that's what happens, so major surgeries are often avoided. But in developing countries, children live with these deformities untreated.
"They adapt and they can walk with it, but they get made fun of. They're just ridiculed," Gangwer said. "So it's literally life changing. They're not beautiful feet when we're done, but they're flat and normal, so to speak, and functional, and it's not something someone would look at and make fun of them for having."
Another common surgery during the trip was amputating extra toes and doing tendon lengthenings and transfers for children with cerebral palsy, Gangwer said.
But whatever the condition was, parents would often cry tears of joy to see their children's conditions fixed.
Oftentimes certain conditions are neglected in developing countries because there's not enough resources, or because local physicians may lack the necessary skills to perform the surgeries.
Between Gangwer and another doctor who does foot and ankle surgeries, 160 patients were seen. There was also an orthopedic spine specialist and a pediatric orthopedist on the trip in addition to other medical volunteers.
Gangwer said he enjoys bonding with the other volunteers on these trips, often becoming lifelong friends with them.
He sees that as just one of the rewards of volunteer work.
"I always have said, anytime you're serving other people, you always get back more than you give," he said. "You don't go for that reason, but that just seems to be how it works. "