GEORGE WHITELAW ’56
Meeting People Where They Are
DR. GEORGE WHITELAW ’56 spent decades building his orthopedic surgery practice in some of Boston’s best-known hospitals. He joined the
teaching faculty of Boston University School of Medicine, his alma mater, and he was director of orthopedic surgery at Boston City Hospital for many years before holding a similar position at Lemuel Shat- tuck Hospital. He regularly volun- teered on medical missions all over the world, usually spending a month each year in places such as Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Ukraine. This heart- felt public service fit into his life as a prospering and caring surgeon, husband, and father. Then, in 2004, during a medical mission in Costa Rica, he met Paulette, a 14-year-old girl who was so ill that the local doctors had told her to “go home and make her peace with God.”
That meeting saved Paulette’s life. It also changed Whitelaw’s.
“We were packing up to leave, and I had this empty feeling inside,” recalls Whitelaw. “You start to realize that some of the volunteer surgery, where you go for a few weeks and then leave, isn’t helping that much and sometimes it’s even counterproductive. We weren’t teaching people to take care of themselves.”
Paulette, who came from a poor family, had been attacked by flesh-eating bacteria. Friends of friends contacted Whitelaw, hoping he could help her. He did. With the help of others, he orchestrated her move to Shriner’s Hospital in Cincinnati. To save her, doctors had to amputate her lower legs.
“She came close to dying while we were trying to find an air ambulance and hospital,” Whitelaw explains. “We got a private jet donated to transport her. We got her fixed up. Once we got through it, I thought, ‘let’s not lose this information so that we can help other people facing similar situations.’ Then, I thought, ‘let’s try to prevent problems from happening’.”
Whitelaw went home and before long he founded the Children’s Well-Being Foundation (CWB), a nonprofit that provides free preventive medical and dental care as well as eye exams to children in Costa Rica with limited access to health services. Henry “Chip” Strapp, who serves as CWB’s treasurer, estimates that 10,000 children a year receive preventive medical assistance through the foundation. “We will never be able to measure how much good we do, because our goal is improving the lives of children to ensure they never get ill,” Strapp says.
By most standards, Costa Rica has one of the best healthcare systems in Latin America. It offers both a government-run universal health- care system, Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, known as Caja, and a private system. The Caja is highly rated at the international level and many point to the country’s high life expectancy as proof that the system works.
So, why does Costa Rica need the CWB? “Costa Rica has a good public health system, but it’s overwhelmed,” says Strapp, who points out that most of CWB’s patients are refugees from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The immigrants are generally poor, uneducated, unaware of how to access the healthcare system, and often hesitant to identify themselves to a government-run organization because they fear deportation.
CWB fills the needs of those who can’t or choose not to use the Caja. “We work closely with the Caja,”explains Whitelaw, who has also built local alliances with the Costa Rican Red Cross. “They often tell us where to go, usually in very poor neighborhoods. In cases where we find people with extreme medical issues, we bring them to Caja hospitals.
”Whitelaw originally envisioned opening clinics around the country, which he did, but has more recently come to see mobile clinics— small buses or minivans—as the best way to provide preventive medicine. “With regular clinics, we ended up seeing the same kids every three or four months,” says Jean Carlos Brenes, a native Costa Rican who manages operations for CWB. “With mobile clinics, we can serve so many more people. But it’s also complicated. We have to pay for bus repairs and we have to guard the bus so that the medical supplies are not stolen.”
CWB relies on a combination of paid employees and volunteers to fulfill its mission. There are between two and four doctors working for the foundation at any given time and volun- teers from the United States come regularly.
Whitelaw’s daughter, Kathryn ’10, who attended College of William & Mary, helped set up an annual program in which the college’s pre-med students come once or twice a year to assist with everything from medical examinations—which often involve immunizations, treating infections, and taking blood pressure and other measure- ments—to picking up trash and painting buildings.
Twice a year, optometry students from Pacific University in Oregon travel to Costa Rica to help the CWB perform eye exams. In March, two teachers and 11 students performed nearly 300 exams a day for a week. The students also visit refugee camps and shelters to see fi st- hand how complicated life is for those living in poverty.
Remarkably, all of CWB’s work is orchestrated by just a handful of people, primarily on a vol- untary basis. CWB’s annual operating revenue is between $60,000 and $70,000, mostly raised through an annual party held in the Boston area —and mostly attended by Whitelaw’s friends, who provide the foundation’s donor base. The board is comprised of old friends of Whitelaw who volunteer their time.
Brenes attended Kansas State University and went on to a lucrative career working in Costa Rica with international conglomerates. He met Whitelaw in 2014, and was so taken by the foundation’s mission that he began volunteering. Soon, he had quit his full-time job and now receives a modest “salary” (mostly to cover expenses) from CWB, which he supplements with income as a financial consultant.
As for Whitelaw, he alternates back and forth between his home in Weston, MA where he continues a sports medicine practice, and Costa Rica. His wife, Dr. Phyllis Carr, is extremely supportive of his work, though Whitelaw acknowledges, with a chuckle, that she is not “enamored” with him being away from home so much. Strapp estimates that Whitelaw uses about $100,000 of his own money annually to cover flights back and forth and living expenses in Costa Rica.
“George is an angel,” says Brenes. “He always flies down with medicines, bandages, everything we need and more. Last Christmas, a local church was planning a party for kids. I asked George in November to bring down some gifts. He came with two big bags containing more than 200 toys. It was so much that he was stopped at customs to pay taxes. That’s George. If the children of Costa Rica need something, and he can do it, he will.”
Dr. George Whitelaw helps open a new clinic in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
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