Professor’s global service honored by American College of Surgeons
In impoverished regions of the globe, where surgical services common in the developed world remain scarce, the work of a retired Creighton University professor of surgery is being honored nationally.
Charles Filipi, MD, FACS, who from 1992 to 2023 served as professor of surgery in the Creighton University School of Medicine, is the founder of Creighton’s Global Surgery Fellowship, which seeks to decrease surgical deaths in developing countries by training surgeons whose sense of mission calls them to distant countries.
Filipi, 82, has had a global impact on healthcare not just through the Creighton fellowship but also by founding Hernia Repair for the Underserved; founding Chronic Care International, which treats diabetes and hypertension in the Dominican Republic; and founding a food program that supports some 75 street children in Ouanaminthe in northeast Haiti.
His work has drawn the attention of the American College of Surgeons, which on Oct. 24 during a black-tie ceremony in Boston will confer on him its Pfizer Humanitarian Award.
According to the ACS, the award recognizes surgeons who have dedicated “a substantial portion of their career to ensuring the provision of surgical care to underserved populations without expectation of commensurate reimbursement."
Dena Steiner Ferguson, MD, is the third graduate of Filipi’s Global Surgery Fellowship. From 2021 to 2023 she learned surgical subspecialty operations and care before spending the final 15 months of her fellowship in central Africa. She currently serves, with her husband, Sam, and their four-month-old daughter, in Togo, west Africa.
“Dr. Filipi embodies the term servant leadership,” she says. “Despite having served long enough to retire comfortably, he continues to advocate for those with limited access to healthcare and other resources.
“He spent hours with me in cadaver lab learning the best way to repair hernias in low-resource contexts. He hosted my husband and I for hours of discussion about the preferential option for the poor, our reactions and adjustments to each site, and how best to walk with those we serve.”
The Global Surgery Fellowship is a two-year program that provides fellows with surgical, anesthesia, NICU, burn and ultrasound training before they are assigned for 15 months to a rural district hospital in a developing country.
The roots of his commitment to serving the poor lie in an experience Filipi and his wife had in 1978 when they met famed Swiss American psychiatrist and hospice movement pioneer, Elisabeth Kübler Ross. A 2004 inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame who was named by Time magazine as among the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the 20th century, Kübler Ross encouraged Filipi’s wife, France Ann, in her desire to open a hospice center with the promise that, “If it is an act of love, the money will be there.”
That statement of faith, Filipi says, has guided everything since.
“It has proved true,” he says. “The money has been there. It comes sometimes at the last moment, sometimes late, often in funny, unexpected ways, but it has been there.”
Aided by his wife, and many colleagues and supporters, he says a family tradition of service is being maintained.
“My wife is from a wonderful, generous, Jesuit-educated family,” he says. “In their way, as farmers in Iowa, they served the poor. They took in foster children, they fed the hoboes. It was just part of their culture, so taking care of the poor comes naturally to her.”
When he speaks at the Boston conference in October, Filipi’s speech will be titled, “Gratitude.”
“The past 20 years have been the best of my life,” he says. “They have been very rewarding.”
A bunch of bananas tells the tale.
In 2004 Filipi was persuaded by his son to join the surgical center at the ILAC Center in the Dominican Republic that for 50 years has worked in close partnership with Creighton University.
“I went down there to see potential patients and then later organized a hernia surgical team to perform surgery,” he says. “A long line of sitting patients was waiting on the day of surgery. One of the patients stood up and gave me a bunch of bananas in an act of gratitude.
“It was a beautiful thing.”