Twin-brother doctors aid needy in Nicaragua

For some patients, it’s first-ever physician visit; some are seriously ill

Identical twins Max and Mark Kartchner perform surgery in San Rafael del Norte, Nicaragua, as part of volunteer work with nonprofit group Esperança. The brothers, 81, are shown here volunteering in November 2010. They returned Thursday to Nicaragua.

By CECELIA MARSHALL for the ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Identical twin brothers Mark and Max Kartchner spent weeks packing and planning for their trip to Nicaragua.

They weren’t going on vacation, though. For about the 20th time, the 81-year-old Tucson doctors – Mark is a surgeon and Max is an anesthesiologist – headed to the Central American country to save lives.

They left Thursday and are spending 10 days helping people in a tiny town there through the organization Esperança.

Before they left, seven bags sat in Mark Kartchner’s garage, each packed with gauze, bandages, gowns, medical instruments and other supplies – enough for the brothers to do about 80 operations.

In San Rafael del Norte, about 115 miles outside the capital of Managua, a staff of local nurses and personnel awaited the brothers at a small clinic with a long list of scheduled surgeries.

Many of the patients have never seen a doctor before. In their communities, clinics are for basic health care not administered by doctors, and rarely do people have the expertise to perform surgery. With the help of Esperança and the Kartchner brothers, this is their chance to get treatment for sometimes life-threatening maladies.

Some people come from hundreds of miles away to see the Kartchner brothers. They have tumors, hernias, and gallbladders that need to be removed.

Max, left, and Mark Kartchner are seen after surgery in November 2010 in San Rafael del Norte, Nicaragua, where the brothers worked with nonprofit Esperança.

Tucson dentist Lewis H. Leavitt accompanied the brothers to perform a scheduled 400 procedures. It’s his third trip. Phoenix-based Esperança, a nonprofit organization, has no other dentists in its program, which is in its 42nd year.

By 7 a.m. on a given day, the brothers begin their surgeries in an operating room half the size of a standard one in the United States. All of the equipment, including monitors, anesthesia and lights, was brought from the U.S. by the Kartchners.

“We are a very lean, mean and efficient group. We wheel them in and then wheel them out of the recovery room, and the next patient walks in carrying their IV and hops on the table, and we’re off and going again,” Mark Kartchner said.

Their day ends around 7 to 8 p.m. The next day begins just as early as the one before, with the same number of surgeries.

“We do eight to 10 operations a day,” Max Kartchner said.

“The sky and time is the limit,” his brother added.

Slowing down is not an option. Even if the power goes out – which it often does – a generator is cranked on from outside, and 30 seconds later they are back at it.

Fatigue isn’t a factor. Both brothers were flabbergasted with the notion that they’d ever get tired.

“We run out of patients, and we also have to consider the staff there. We can run them into the ground if we’re not too careful,” Max Kartchner said.

“By the time we all leave, their tongues are hanging out and they’re ready to call it a day and wave a white flag,” Mark Kartchner said jokingly.

The local nurses, whom the Kartchners described as “very devoted and caring,” are responsible for monitoring 25 to 30 post-op patients at a time in an adjoining building.

The small operating room and tight schedule aren’t uncommon conditions for the Kartchners. Before founding the program for Esperança in Nicaragua, they worked in Bolivia, where at times they operated on nothing more than a kitchen table.

“We’re providing a care they just can’t get locally,” Mark Kartchner said. “If we did those same surgeries in the U.S., 50 surgeries would be the equivalent of $1 million.”

The brothers pay their entire way and expenses out of pocket, while the medical supplies are donated by Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital and Tucson Medical Center.

“The Kartchner brothers are incredibly kind and generous men,” said Tom Egan, Esperança’s president and CEO. Plus, he said, “They are sharp as a tack.”

Last Christmas, the Kartchners even rented a U-Haul truck to collect the medical supplies. Some of those supplies they take with them, and others they ship ahead of time.

Both retired in 1997 from Southern Surgical Associates, which they founded in Tucson, though Mark Kartchner still assists in surgeries nearly daily.

Doctors Max Kartchner, left, and his twin brother, Mark, traveled to Nicaragua to provide surgeries for people in need. The 81-year-old twins posed July 23 at Southwestern Surgical Associates in Tucson. It will be their 20th time doing such volunteer work.

Esperança has kept them busy. Plans are already under way for a return trip in October and another in the spring.

“There are plenty of doctors who want to go and plenty of patients,” Egan said. “Funding is the only thing that is holding us back. We’re good at what we do – it’s amazing work, but it’s hard to get our word out.”

Even with the astonishing number of procedures they do, the Kartchners can’t tackle everything.

“I always come back with tears in my eyes, thinking about all the people that I have to leave behind that I was unable to provide assistance to,” Mark Kartchner said.

“I can do a little good in the world, and the world could use a little good. It may only be a drop in the bucket, but enough drops will fill the bucket.”

On StarNet: See more pictures at azstarnet.com/gallery online.

How to get involved

To find out more about Esperança, go to www.esperanca.org or call 1-602-252-7772.

“There are plenty of doctors who want to go and plenty of patients. Funding is the only thing that is holding us back.”

Tom Egan, Esperança’s president and CEO

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