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Medical School Sweethearts Team Up as Medical Missionaries

Dave Oviatt, MD, MHA, and Susie Radecky, MD, MPA, celebrate their graduation from Northwestern University Medical School in June 1977.

They became fast friends as classmates in Northwestern University’s six-year Honors Program in Medical Education, but it quickly became apparent to Dave Oviatt, MD ’77, MHA, that Susie Radecky, MD ’77, MPA, was more than a friend, she was “the one.”

“Our shared faith and the hours we spent studying together brought us closer; it was a classic medical school romance,” says Susie, who Dave eventually won over by learning how to snow ski — a pastime the couple still enjoys, along with other activities like biking, swimming, and running.

Dave and Susie’s first mission trip was to ELWA Hospital in Liberia, West Africa, in April 1977.

The Oviatts married in 1976 at the end of their third year of medical school. After graduating a quarter early, they embarked on their first service trip overseas. Funded by Medical Assistance Program-Readers’ Digest International Fellowships, the new MDs spent more than two months treating patients at ELWA Hospital in Liberia.

“The experience exposed us to diseases like measles that we had only read about in textbooks,” Susie says. “Tending to both the physical and spiritual needs of our West African patients was life changing.”

The couple returned to the U.S. and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where they both began three-year residencies at Michigan State University-affiliated programs.  Susie chose to pursue family medicine, while Dave focused on internal medicine.

The Oviatts relocated to Nashville, Tenn. for Dave’s two-year fellowship in hematology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center before planting their roots back in Grand Rapids. They have two sons, Ted, 27, and Christopher, 23.

While raising their children, Dave led a hematology practice for 24 years, focusing on malignant conditions such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. After several years as a family medicine residency faculty member, Susie became residency program director in 1987, a position she held for 19 years.

Mission ‘Bug’ Returns

An Oviatt family photo at son Ted’s wedding.

During their practice years, Susie went on several weeklong mission trips to Mexico, Central America, and Albania, and even spent a month in Papua New Guinea and Honduras. Along the way, she met patients suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and other diseases.

“It’s easy to take for granted all that we have here; it’s easy to feel entitled,” says Susie. “My travels have given me a unique perspective. I realize that it’s a privilege to have the skills that I do and to have the opportunity to help people who don’t have access to clean water or medications that will make them better.”

Dave fully supported Susie during her time abroad by taking care of the home front. When they were teenagers, Susie exposed her sons to the way children lived across the world, taking each of them on short-term trips to Papua New Guinea and Yucatán, Mexico.

Dave Oviatt with sons Ted and Toph (Christopher) at the finish line of the Bayshore Marathon, which Dave ran for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in May 2005.

After the Oviatts’ joint early retirement in 2006, the couple answered a calling to team up on medical missions. With Susie’s guidance, Dave transitioned from an American tertiary subspecialist to a Third World generalist, a challenge he greatly enjoyed.

“Missions were something we could do together that matched our interests, medically and spiritually,” says Susie.

Volunteer Medicine

By associating with World Medical Mission, the medical arm of the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, Dave and Susie now connect with needy hospitals across the developing world. Over the past four years, the couple has filled in for full-time missionary doctors in Togo, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, and Bangladesh who need time to visit their families and supporting churches.

Their most recent trip in early 2009 was to the Republic of Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations. The Oviatts wrote about the people and diseases they encountered at Galmi Hospital on their blog, OviattsOnTheGo. The pair spent their mornings completing hospital rounds and their afternoons treating patients in outpatient clinics.  They saw numerous cases of malaria, typhoid, malnutrition, and HIV.

“These hospitals are quite humble compared to those in America,” Dave says. “We have to rely on physical exams and whatever limited laboratory or radiology studies are available. Oftentimes our diagnoses are simply our best guess.”

These and other challenges serve as motivation for a duo that enjoys providing vulnerable populations with a chance for a successful outcome. While it’s never easy to be away from family, Dave and Susie maximize their time at home. Retirement also allows them more time for church activities and to volunteer at inner-city clinics for the uninsured.

Family and health issues kept them in Michigan for the past 18 months; however in October the Oviatts returned to a rural Togo hospital for a two-month mission. They hope to continue to travel twice per year, serving for two to three months at a time.

“In spite of what may sound like overwhelming limitations at hospitals in the developing world, we greatly enjoy working with and caring for people from different cultures,” Dave says. “We certainly receive more than we give.”

Patients to Remember

Susie and Dave Oviatt at the entrance of Kudjip Hospital in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The Oviatts continuously reflect on their experiences with patients, many of whom have left a lasting imprint on their hearts. On call one evening while serving in Togo, Dave met a young girl suffering from typhoid fever. Her belly was severely swollen, so Dave called in the surgeon, who invited him to assist in the OR.

“I hadn’t scrubbed in for a surgery since I was a third-year medical student,” Dave says. “But, the young girl survived, and I was able to watch over her as she recovered from her pain.”

Susie was also touched by a patient in Togo — a premature baby weighing 700 grams at birth.

“Baby Kelly’s mother and grandmother slept on the floor by her crib for four months; her mom provided her with breast milk and my colleagues transfused her with their own blood so that she could grow healthier,” says Susie.

By the time the Oviatts left Togo, Kelly was discharged. This story is a testament, Susie says, that even the most vulnerable populations can receive medical care and have a positive outcome.

Development & Alumni Relations Staff Unite to Form One Integrated Office

The Offices of Development and Alumni Relations recently joined staff and resources to form one dedicated group. The change, which took effect August 2, models the organizational structure employed by the University. It unites the team in one location, permits greater collaboration on alumni outreach, and allows for a more cohesive messaging strategy.

“Our offices have always worked well together, so we expect a seamless transition,” says Katherine Kurtz, dean for development, adding that integration simply makes sense. “Joining the groups became a practical decision, as we are able to maximize resources and repurpose materials across the department.”

Under the leadership of Kurtz, the Office of Development & Alumni Relations serves as a point of connection and engagement between the medical school and its alumni and friends, as well as corporations, foundations, and other organizations that support and advance the mission of the medical school.

“With development and alumni relations staff working closely and leveraging one another’s successes, we increase our opportunities for engagement with friends and potential donors across the country,” Kurtz says.

Ginny Darakjian, assistant dean for alumni relations; Olympia Asimacopoulos and Erin Mater, associate directors of medical alumni relations; and Cathy May, coordinator of special events, join members of development to form the newly integrated group. The roles and duties of the Alumni Relations team will not change within the new office, but Kurtz expects the collaboration to result in enhanced workflow.

“We are excited to move forward with plans that are coordinated and centered on engaging alumni and other friends of Feinberg in the life of our medical school,” Kurtz says. “This partnership allows for increased activity across the department; it certainly offers everyone a great deal of added value.”