MUSC surgeon hits the road to help remote patients in Ecuador

Adam Wise
November 28, 2023
Mike Mallah, M.D., MUSC surgeon, poses for a photo with the Cinterandes mobile surgery team while in Ecuador this summer. Photos by Dr. Mallah

When Mike Mallah, M.D., set off from Charleston on a humanitarian medical trip to Central Africa, he expected to spend two weeks in Cameroon supporting the work of renowned surgeon James Brown, M.D.

Hours later, stuck in New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and unable to cross the Atlantic due to unforeseen visa issues, Mallah had to think on the fly: He could return home and possibly waste the two weeks of time he had dedicated to doing humanitarian surgeries or find a new destination in which to make a global impact.

He realized he knew exactly who to call.

Mallah, an assistant professor of Surgery in the College of Medicine and global surgery program director, dialed up Edgar B. Rodas, M.D., an associate professor of Surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Prior to joining MUSC in October of 2022, Mallah had completed a trauma/surgical critical care fellowship at VCU, where Rodas served as one of his attendings, quickly becoming a mentor.

On the call, Rodas shared that he was starting his latest trip to Ecuador with Cinterandes, a medical nonprofit organization founded by his late father. The organization, which Rodas now leads, features a mobile surgery program that travels into some of the most rural areas of the country to provide life-changing procedures to residents who otherwise would not be able to access or afford surgery.Dr. Edgar Rodas writes in a notebook while in the Cinterandes mobile unit, appearing in front of a photo and quote from his father.

Seeing the opportunity, Rodas invited Mallah to join. Mallah redirected his plans and headed South – just another day in the life of a global surgeon.

Upon arrival, Mallah was in awe of the setup and capabilities of the mobile surgical unit. An operating room built on the back of a truck, the Cinterandes mobile unit allows medical staff to perform a number of surgical interventions, including laparoscopic cholecystectomy, tubal ligation, inguinal and abdominal herniorrhaphies, superficial tumors extraction, circumcisions and many more.

“One of the biggest advents in our field was that of minimally invasive surgery, where the incisions are very small, quickening the recovery time,” he said. “In the context of low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), people often don’t have the resources, infrastructure or training to do minimally invasive operations.

“What’s amazing about Cinterandes is taking the operating room and those resources to the patients, doing minimally invasive procedures, providing faster recovery times with less pain, allowing the patients and their families to get back to their lives more quickly.”

Since its founding in 1994, Cinterandes has completed nearly 9,000 surgeries to date, traveling to 18 of the 24 provinces within Ecuador, according to the organization. While Mallah was there, in one day alone, he performed eight gallbladder removals; other procedures included lipoma excisions and a variety of urological procedures.

Mallah, who has traveled to 55 countries around the world and operated on five continents, had never seen a mobile surgical unit, let alone worked in one. It left its mark.

“I’d heard of them before but seeing it in person is a completely different experience,” he said. “‘I can’t believe they’re doing this.’ It shifts the paradigm from the patient who is sick and in need of help having to travel for care. Instead, Cinterandes brings the care to them.”

A view of the mobile unit surgical site in Ecuador.

Mallah, who is also leading the implementation of a pilot grant funded by the MUSC Center for Global Health, focused on the development of a universal case log system in LMIC settings, said he can’t thank his friends and colleague enough for the experience in Ecuador and his continued mentorship of his career.

“I think Dr. Rodas is just such an amazing individual,” he said. “Aside from being a technically brilliant surgeon, his head and heart are in the right place. He’s just focused and committed to doing what’s right for the patient, and that has been consistent since I first met him.”

Mallah eyes returning to Ecuador next year, hopefully with additional medical staff from MUSC, so they, too, can experience the mobile surgical unit, and also to see if there are opportunities to bring additional value and innovation to the Ecuadorian team and its patients.

For now, like all of his trips, he will relish the experience he had in Ecuador and use it to invigorate his work locally at MUSC with the Global Surgery Program and the Center for Global Health.

“The same beauty and struggle that I saw in Ecuador, I can also see in Charleston,” he said. “Going to that next location always makes me realize how connected we are as humans – we have the exact same aspirations, the exact same struggles. That beauty is what connects us.”

You can view additional images of Mallah’s experience in Ecuador in this photo gallery.