A Scripps spinal surgeon has changed the lives of underprivileged children around the world by providing surgeries and services free of charge.
Dr. Gregory M. Mundis Jr., an orthopedic spine surgeon who has been in practice for a decade and working with Scripps since 2014, began his missionary work about nine years ago. He is currently the acting director of Global Spine Outreach, which was founded five years ago, whose mission is to provide services and surgeries for children living with complex spinal deformities.
The Carmel Valley resident — who practices at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla and at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines — goes on a minimum of four missionary trips every year and has performed operations in countries such as Kenya and Columbia. Most recently, for a week in mid-September, he visited Monterrey, Mexico, where he helped about 40 pediatric patients who otherwise could not afford their medical care.
Mundis recently spoke of his volunteer work and latest trip in an interview.
Q: What did your trip to Mexico entail?
A: It was actually a pretty amazing trip. We did some of our usual work, and we also did some work that we have not done before, which was kind of fun. We saw a total of about 40 patients, all pediatric. ... We also ended up operating on about 13 patients throughout the week, and that included anything from more routine pediatric scoliosis work to advanced surgeries that are not really performed at that many centers, even in the U.S. Those are some fairly risky operations where we have to expose the entire spinal cord and disconnect the spine to put it back into its right orientation.
Q: What can you tell us about Global Spine Outreach?
A: Basically, our mission statement is to provide these services free of charge. We refuse to put the patients through any hardships for this. They basically come, we provide the surgical services for free and we provide the implants that are necessary for the operations. ... We get the implants donated. The hospitals donate their facilities, anesthesiologists and the medicine. The patients see no financial burden or anything financial at all.
Q: That must mean a lot to the children and their families.
A: In some cases, it's an overwhelming thing. You can definitely see it in the eyes of the families of these kids. They have this gratitude and motivation to get better. It's really unbelievable. It's weird, but in the U.S. when you tell a family that a member has a bad deformity and needs surgery, they go get second, third and fourth opinions and think the world is ending. In Mexico... they feel like they won the jackpot. It's a different cultural dynamic. It's pretty special.
Q: Why have these missions been so important to you?
A: For me, it all started growing up in a missionary family. I think it's just part of my DNA, culture and the way I grew up. My wife and I always say we're blessed to bless. ... That's how we live our day-to-day and what we try to teach our kids. ... The motivation is to help others. It's amazing how much fun it is because it always somehow comes back on us as a blessing. ... For me, there's certainly a spiritual element to it. I feel like God has given my family a gift, and it would be selfish of me to keep that gift to myself.
Q: Do you have any favorite stories of your missionary work?
A: There was a 16-year-old Columbian boy who was just a good-looking kid, really athletic but had a pretty bad spine problem. When we got to see him, he actually was going paralyzed. He came in, barely able to put one foot in front of the other because of the lack of balance that he had due to his spinal cord being compressed. ... We saw him on a Sunday and operated on him a few days later after we got the right imaging. We did a really successful operation on him, relieved the pressure on his spinal cord and he was able to walk out of the hospital. Six months later, he came in, had a soccer ball with him and was doing all these tricks. It's really a remarkable story.
Q: What does it mean to you to be able to change people's lives like that?
A: I guess I don't think of it that way as much. Maybe I should. I just think it's an opportunity to share something that I have, and I have a great job with Scripps where I can provide people with amazing medical care. I just feel like this is an extension of that, just in a different place where people don't have access as much. To me, it means the most knowing that I have something that I can share.
Q: How has your field evolved in recent years? Is this a field that has seen a lot of advances and promise in terms of people with spine deformities?
A: No question. The world of spine treatment is an actively changing environment. It's pretty incredible. It's one of those fields where it's really exciting to practice now because the advancements in the techniques have really revolutionized how we can manage patients that have complex problems. It's a very fun time in the practice because we're getting patients back to their regular lives a lot faster than we used to and the complication rates have gone down substantially. Our ability to get improved long-term success is something that we're certainly seeing actively in our practice here at Scripps.
Q: How can people help you continue these services?
A: We need all kinds of entities. We need people who can volunteer their time, energy and efforts to help move this forward. There's also obviously a huge financial need to support this and get these kids care. In general, to fund the surgeries, it takes about $2,000 per kid. They're not inexpensive even to fundraise for. ... Every minute counts that you can give, and every dollar counts that you can donate.
For more information, volunteer opportunities and to donate, visit www.globalspineoutreach.org.
This Q&A has been edited and shortened for length.