HUMANITARIAN Introduction From the Guest Editor

By: Joseph A. Smith Jr, MD, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee | Posted on: 10 Nov 2023

A humanitarian is defined in the dictionary as “a person concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.” Such a broad portrayal obviously encompasses many activities and passions. In fact, much of the day-to-day activity of a physician could be categorized under that delineation. There are amongst our colleagues, though, individuals whose dedication, effort, and selflessness transcend norms and can be recognized as truly altruistic.

This issue of AUANews captures briefly the story of some of those individuals. Although few would contest an overarching label of humanitarian for their efforts, each is distinguished by different circumstances, opportunities, and accomplishments. The stories range from those of Dr Denis Mukwege (Figure), a Nobel Peace Prize winner on the front lines of a conflict region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to individuals devoted to improving care for the disadvantaged or marginalized in their own community. There is a preponderance of articles about international work, but that doesn’t imply that there aren’t opportunities for the best of humanitarian work in virtually every neighborhood. One doesn’t have to travel halfway around the world to find people in need.


Figure. Dr Denis Mukwege and Dr Joseph Smith at Panzi Hospital, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Particularly inspiring are the experiences of individuals who have devoted their entire adult lives to helping others. Dr Kenneth Johnson describes life as a Jesuit priest and surgeon assigned to an unexpected lifelong presence in Zambia and Malawi. Other responsibilities including family commitments don’t permit such a role for others, but enormous contributions can also be achieved through short-term surgical missions, especially those devoted to training local surgeons.

Most students entering medical school are at least partially motivated by heartfelt humanitarian intent. Somewhere along the way, though, that seems to get partially extinguished, or at least not visibly manifest, in some. Of course, the most genuine of charitable efforts may not be obvious but can include work within one’s church, schools, or community programs. This issue of AUANews does, though, focus mainly on humanitarian ventures related to medicine and surgery. Urologic surgeons have particular skills and experience which can make dramatic differences in their patients’ lives and which can readily translate into benevolent missions. A goal of publishing these stories is not only to motivate humanitarian works, but also to provide a roadmap for the variety of ways in which they can appear.

Connection with an established organization devoted to humanitarian work is a potential entry point for those wondering how to get started. With that intent, programs associated with the Urology Care Foundation™, IVUmed, the Pan African Association of Christian Surgeons, and others are used as examples of what can occur. Some are faith based, others associated with professional organizations, and additional ones are secular, independent charitable ventures. All have a common theme of selfless devotion to others and fulfill the loftiest ideals of humanitarianism. The definition of the word may be broad, but the mission it entails for surgeons is distinct. It is my hope as guest editor of this issue that readers are inspired by the work of their colleagues and that it furthers their own humanitarian spirit, regardless of how that is manifest.