Humble Hero

 Mexico Honors El Paso Physician for Humanitarian Efforts

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Trusted Leader - January 2006  

By  Larry BeSaw

You don't have to talk to Jacob Heydemann, MD, for very long to understand that he doesn't treat poor Mexican children for free just for the publicity. In fact, he began the interview for this story by apologizing for his office manager telling Texas Medicine that he had just received the highest award the government of Mexico can give a foreign civilian, the Medal of the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

"I do it for the joy of it, really," the El Paso orthopedic surgeon said. "I don't think there's anything more rewarding than trying to help people in need."

Dr. Heydemann, who specializes in congenital malformations, began earning the trust of the Mexican government and its people 20 years ago when he established his practice in El Paso and accepted an invitation from the Mexican Federation of Private Associations for Community Health and Development to begin treating Mexican children with severe orthopedic deformities. What began in a tiny Juárez clinic with five closet-size rooms blossomed into an international effort involving an El Paso hospital, anesthesiologists, nurses, physical therapists, and orthotics suppliers. All donate their services to help children live as normal a life as possible. In that time, Dr. Heydemann and his team have treated more than 7,000 children.

A 1979 graduate of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, Dr. Heydemann goes to Ciudad Juárez once a month to see 40 to 50 children from Chihuahua and four other states in northern Mexico. These are children who have suffered with severe deformities for years and who cannot get treatment elsewhere, either because few doctors in Mexico treat such conditions, because Mexican surgeons often have long waiting lists (up to 100 patients in some cases), or because the children's families simply cannot afford to pay for their care. Among the conditions he has treated, he says, are clubfoot, hip dislocation, spastic paraplegia, chronic osteomyelitis, and malunited fracture deformity.

Children needing surgery are brought across the border to El Paso. That sometimes presents a problem; Dr. Heydemann and his colleagues have to deal with a lot of red tape in getting the kids into the United States because of tighter security at the El Paso entry point since Sept. 11, 2001.

While he is not paid in dollars for his efforts, Dr. Heydemann, 53, is well compensated by the appreciation of the children and their parents. They bring him small trinkets or tokens or drawings. One woman gave him some Mexican cheese. Some of the children he treated years ago have given him photos of themselves after they have grown up. He has the pictures on display in his office.

"The people of Mexico are just so appreciative for anything you can do, even if it's minimal," he said. "It's just the fact that you took the time to spend with them, give them advice or treatment, even though it may not change their course significantly. They're just grateful that you've attempted to do something."

Dr. Heydemann was shocked when he learned he was receiving the award, which honors foreign civilians for their service to Mexico as a nation or to humanity as a whole. He didn't see what he was doing as exceptional, and he didn't think many people knew about it anyway. (They still don't. The El Paso newspaper barely mentioned it.) But the Mexican government knew, and Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez presented Dr. Heydemann the award on behalf of President Vicente Fox.

How can he take time from his busy private practice and personal life to treat people for free? He first credits his wife, who, he says, "is very willing to do more than her share in raising our children. She understands this is something that is important to me and the community." Second, the patients in need are virtually on his doorstep. "I don't have to travel to Central or South America or the Far East. I have people in need just across the border here."

Dr. Heydemann recommends volunteering as a way to get back to the roots of medicine -- helping people in need. "If you really want to volunteer your expertise, the opportunities are there in every community." 

Larry BeSaw can be reached at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1383, or (512) 370-1383; by fax at (512) 370-1629, or by email at larry.besaw[at]texmed[dot]org .

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