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UA hand surgeon gloves up to save goals in Honduras

A University of Arizona hand surgeon is making an eighth annual trip to Honduras, where he will perform surgery for underprivileged locals. But this year, Dr. Joseph Sheppard will not only be using his hands to reconstruct fingers, but to block soccer balls. 

Sheppard and his team of medical professionals have been challenged to a match against a local soccer team that the Tucson doctor helped sponsor. He plans to take his turn in goal against Los Gatos Salvajes — Spanish for "Wildcats."

Sheppard spent the past year leading a fundraising effort for a Honduran men's league soccer team captained by one of the employees of Hospital Centro Socorro De Lo Alto, the clinic at which Sheppard performs the surgeries, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This year's trip will be the first time Sheppard has seen the team since the sponsorship.

"It is a kind of an unveiling," said Sheppard, who specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery.

The medical mission is organized by Evangelistic International Ministries, a nonprofit religious organization. "You don't have to be a part of their medical mission to go," Sheppard said. "You just have to adhere to their rules."

Sheppard had previously traveled to Honduras with Health Volunteers Overseas. This will be his third year traveling through EIM, said Phyllis Goldstein, an administrative assistant in the UA Orthopaedic Surgery Department,

The medical volunteers usually work from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and see about six cases a day, Sheppard said. The patients, who aren't charged for the surgeries, come from all over Honduras.

Third-year UA medical student Jamie Flemming helped Sheppard with the fundraising effort. As the Global Health Chair of the American Medical Student Association Tucson chapter, Flemming helped raise about $500 for the soccer team.  Altogether, Sheppard received about $2,000 in donations. Flemming, along with Orthopedic Surgery Resident David Margolis, left with Sheppard on Friday. 

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"Dr. Sheppard is incredibly passionate about helping people," Margolis said. "Otherwise, I don't think he would be doing this year after year."

A portion of the donations paid for the renovation of a makeshift soccer field on the hospital's grounds. Goal posts made of branches have been replaced with regulation-sized goal posts, Sheppard said. The donations also paid for 25 team uniforms, cleats, socks, and shin guards. The supplies arrived in October, Goldstein said. 

Goldstein also had a soccer playbook translated into Spanish for the team, which was sent along with the supplies.  

"Hopefully the funding we have provided will help generate a team that can compete locally," Sheppard said. "I would like to see them grow as an organization in terms of their participation in local futbol and hope they will develop some kind of identity and direction."

Los Gatos Salvajes dubbed the team medical volunteers and staff "The Brigade," Sheppard said.

"I have never been a part of a brigade before," Sheppard said with a smile. Sheppard will be playing goalie with the help of Margolis as part of his line of defense. Flemming said that she will be playing mid-field.   

"I don't think there is any hope of us winning," Margolis said, chuckling. 

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courtesy of Phyllis Goldstein

Sheppard performing surgery in Jan. 2012 on a 2-year-old Honduran boy whose hand was nearly cut in half by a machete.