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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Pursuing a Medical Mission with Heart

When Gerhard Ziemer was last in Lima, Peru, a young woman about 20 years old came up and hugged him. Ziemer, MD, PhD, didn't recognize her. The last time he had seen her, she was four, and he was operating on her heart.

"I was really pleased and somewhat moved by her approaching me in this way," said Ziemer, who arrived at the University of Chicago Medicine a year ago as the Director of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery. "Her name is Norliz, and she'll be 21 in August."

Ziemer has spent the last 17 years volunteering at a hospital in central Lima. Since his first visit to the Instituto Nacional de Salud del Niño in 1995, he has operated on more than 400 children "too sick to live well, but too well to die," he said.

"I cannot stop doing this, unless I just cannot do it for physical reasons," Ziemer said. "It's become part of my life."

Originally from Tübingen, Germany, Ziemer visits Peru once or twice each year for a hectic week, sometimes performing 14 surgeries in six days. The hospitals there "are impoverished, living off of international donations, including donated equipment from France, Germany and Japan," said Ziemer. "It's not the easiest way to work."

While he always tries to bring some instruments and materials on his trips, he often brought helping hands when he worked in Germany. "I brought either a young resident or a pediatric intensive care unit nurse—who had to speak Spanish!" said Ziemer, who started night Spanish classes eight years ago. Since coming to the University of Chicago Medicine, although he doesn't yet have funding to bring colleagues along, word is getting out. "Nurses have already asked!"

"I cannot stop doing this, unless I just cannot do it for physical reasons," Ziemer said. "It's become part of my life."

One concern is to help improve the Peruvian health system. Since 2001, Ziemer has facilitated bringing 18 Peruvian medical personnel to his German hospital—two people for two months at a time. "It was really an incentive for them to stay focused on their work. We had them observe and participate," he said. "They saw how a more organized system can work. I would love to be able to establish something like this here at the University of Chicago."

While he has occasionally volunteered in other countries, Ziemer emphasizes the importance of committing oneself to a particular place. "People always ask, ‘Why do you go only there?'" he said. "I feel it's a good thing just to go to one place. It's better to make relationships that can continue and grow, and to really build something up somewhere."