Dr. Hector Tarraza took some vacation time to go to Peru for a couple weeks earlier this month. But it was no vacation.

Tarraza performed dozens of surgeries on patients who would otherwise have continued to suffer, or in some cases would have died.

And the morning after a 15-hour trip home to Cape Elizabeth, Tarraza went back to his day job. The 56-year-old chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Maine Medical Center scrubbed up for a radical hysterectomy, one of two surgeries he performed that day.

Tarraza belongs to an adventurous group of Maine medical professionals who apply their healing skills beyond the state’s borders, in some cases on their own time and at their own expense. They often work long hours in remote, impoverished places without the luxuries of high-tech diagnostic equipment, blood banks or general anesthesia.

“It’s back to doing the best you can with what you’ve got,” Tarraza said. “This is the heart and soul of what we are all about. To be able to provide care to people who have nothing is a great opportunity.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 30, the Daniel Hanley Center for Health Leadership, a Portland-based trust that promotes health care innovation, will honor four organizations and five medical professionals, including Tarraza, for their leadership in medical and humanitarian relief efforts outside the state.

The recognition comes at a historic time for some of the Mainers focused on medical relief.

The Portland-based director of one of the selected groups, Konbit Sante Cap Haitien Health Partnership, won’t be at Tuesday’s event because he left late last week for Haiti to help coordinate the fight against a cholera epidemic that has killed about 1,200 people and overwhelmed medical resources.

Another of the honorees, Dr. Chiedza Jokonya, came home last week after working to save cholera patients in northern Haiti. She and a fellow faculty member from Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Augusta, along with three medical residents, had to flee Cap Haitien through angry street demonstrations and roadblocks as fear, frustration and political tensions spread through the country.

The Haiti trip was especially frightening, said Jokonya, a 43-year-old pediatrician and family practice doctor from Cape Elizabeth. But it hasn’t changed her desire to go back to the island or to places such as Zimbabwe, where she also does regular medical missions.

“This is what I really enjoy doing,” she said last week.

Like many of the doctors who go overseas, Jokonya said she likes to take residents on the trips, both so they can help care for people who desperately need it and so they can gain experience that will help them care for patients here.

“For the residents, having an international experience really helps” to sharpen basic skills and learn different ways to solve problems, she said. “In the U.S., we tend to focus so much on technology.”

Another of the honorees is Jennifer Morton, a 48-year-old faculty member at the University of New England who takes groups of 12 to 22 students to Ghana twice a year for two weeks. Morton’s teams work side by side with local medical workers treating malaria, parasites and chronic diseases.

“We’ve created a learning experience that is more than just plopping them into a clinic,” Morton said. “It’s about opening their eyes and opening their hearts.”

Morton’s connections also have led to a new, broader public health partnership between UNE, the Ghana Health Service and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.

Tarraza, the obstetrician at Maine Medical Center, also takes residents on his trips, as well as nurses and fellow doctors.

Tarraza’s commitment to relief work is especially intense. He is medical director of Global Health Ministry and serves four other international medical relief agencies.

He takes about five trips each year to places such as Sierra Leone, Haiti, Guatemala, Peru and Columbia, where he has to travel with armed guards because of drug-related terrorism. One week before his recent trip to Peru, for example, he was in Ethiopia treating patients.

He pays for his own travel and uses all of his vacation time and professional conference time for mission trips. He even picks up extra weekend and holiday shifts here so he can spend more time overseas.

Tarraza has helped reduce the number of mothers who die during childbirth in impoverished areas such as the mountains of Peru, where a number of children are named Hector after the smiling American doctor, said Eileen Skinner, president and chief executive officer of Mercy Hospital and the colleague who nominated Tarraza for the award.

“He’s like a mission machine. He’s constantly mobilized to go,” Skinner said. And, she said, “He doesn’t stop his mission work in Portland. He takes exceptional care of all his patients.”

Tarraza said he often gets asked why he goes all over the world when there are people in need in this country. Doctors who care for people in the poor areas of the United States are doing great work, he said.

“If we lined up everyone who needed these kinds of services, it would be a long line,” he said. “I’m just starting at one end of the line and other people are starting at the other end. The need is so big.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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