Dr. Burak Ozgur Volunteers in Palestine, Changes Lives Forever

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It is Thanksgiving morning and Dr. Burak Ozgur, a Newport Beach neurosurgeon, walks ancient streets to perform 21st-century medical miracles.

In moments, Ozgur will enter a hospital on the West Bank. He is armed with medical supplies that he’s brought from the United States. Soon, he will do exactly what he’s done for the past four days — repair damaged bodies.

A specialist in spinal microsurgery, Ozgur works 12-hour shifts and will complete a dozen operations over the course of the week in a woefully under-equipped hospital. His only payment is thank-yous.

Yet there is much to celebrate. Watching people move limbs that were immobile only a few hours before spreads smiles.

During Ozgur’s first visit to the West Bank last year, one woman was in such pain and so frustrated that she begged for months to have her paralyzed leg amputated. The same day that Ozgur operated, the woman was able to walk for the first time in years.

“She woke up,” Ozgur says, smiling at the memory, “with tears of joy. She even danced a little.”

This year, a nurse who lost the use of an arm is able to move it for the first time in months.

The neurosurgeon’s work is intense, serious and allows no room — not even a millimeter — for error. To relieve stress, Ozgur and his brother, also a physician, find time to visit Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem, 30 miles to the south.

There, the brothers steal a moment to chest bump in front of the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine topped with a gold dome.

Toward week’s end, Ozgur is invited to a friend’s home for a special Palestinian-style Thanksgiving dinner complete with a big platter of rice, ground beef, cheese and chicken.

Perhaps his experience of joy and sharing in an area known for bloodshed is surprising. It shouldn’t be.

To be sure, when most of us think of a city like Nablus where Ozgur volunteers, we think of divisiveness, war, thousand-year-old rivalries.

After all, over two millennia Nablus has been ruled by Romans, Christians, Samaritans, Arab Caliphates, Crusaders, Egyptians, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire and is now under Palestinian control.

But, Ozgur assures, “Muslims, Christians, Jews can all live peacefully and respectfully.”

In the halls of healing, there is no room for politics or proselytizing.

There is room, however, to discover the mysteries of the spine and brain, an adventure the chief of neurosurgery at Hoag Hospital likens to space exploration.

“I’ve seen odd phenomenon,” he allows, “ that can’t be explained.”

Helping where help is needed
Born and raised in Glendale, Ozgur’s parents immigrated to the United States from Turkey. One of five children, he chose to follow his father’s path and became a neurosurgeon.

But that doesn’t mean the son is the same as the father. Now retired, Dad specialized in trauma and that meant crazy-busy hours.

Married for 26 years to his teenage sweetheart, Ozgur, now 44, works hard to balance his practice with his family, which includes three children ages 21, 20 and 17.

The physician recalls his first child was born when Dad was studying gross anatomy, his second when he was rotating into obstetrics and gynecology, his third when he was a resident at UC San Diego Medical Center.

Ozgur also is careful to appreciate the journey. At medical school in Vermont, he loved small town culture, the four seasons, meeting dairy farmers — including one who happened to supply the milk for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

It was at UCSD where Ozgur started refining his practice of microsurgery. Much later, a friend introduced him to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund which now supports Ozgur’s missions.

Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization that monitors nonprofits, gives the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund a four-star rating and a 100 percent accountability and transparency score. In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter endorsed the nonprofit.

“The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund,” states the organization, “is a non-political organization established in 1991 by concerned people in the U.S. to address the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East.”

Ozgur elaborates that the Relief Fund also assists adults in need.

“Palestinians are really in a tough spot,” the doctor allows. “They don’t have access to health care that others do.”

Last year, Ozgur was accompanied by an anesthesiologist and a physician assistant. This year, the same physician assistant went, as well as Ozgur’s brother, Omar, an ocular and plastic surgeon.

In Nablus, Dr. Omar Ozgur built an eyelid for a girl who had lost the covering in an acid incident. A photo shows the girl beaming, her wounded eye swathed in white bandages.

Over both trips, Burak Ozgur saw some 200 patents, treating most for issues that didn’t require major surgery. His focus this year was treating people with severe neck problems.

To ensure he had adequate supplies, Ozgur brought cages, plates, screws and drill bits to fuse vertebrae.

In the United States such items usually are used once and discarded. In Palestine, Ozgur reports, the tools are sterilized and used again — and again.

Power of healing
During a conversation at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Ozgur says he’ll probably be back in Palestine next year. But in the meantime, there is much healing to be done locally.

Too often, Ozgur says, people with back pain think they can’t be treated. That’s not necessarily true, he advises. “It’s sad that so many people think they’re too old and have to suffer.”

Ozgur reports he has patients in their 90s — and some far younger. Sometimes, he adds, mysteries unfold.

Anthony was seven years old when he was hit in the head by a softball. He seemed fine and x-rays showed his skull was intact. But, Ozgur says, x-rays also showed the boy had an undiagnosed tumor.

The tumor was removed and by any measure Anthony should have been fine. But he was mute. Once talkative, the boy couldn’t say a word.

A month later, Anthony was watching “Shrek.” Suddenly, he started singing, “Now I’m a believer / Not a trace of doubt in my mind / I’m in love / I’m a believer.”

Later, Anthony started talking again. “That song,” Ozgur explains, “was the catalyst.”

Ozgur offers that different parts of the brain control different types of speech. He figures there was a pathway in the cerebellum that had to reconnect.

“Ninety percent of the brain,” the physician says, “we don’t understand.”

But Anthony’s story doesn’t end there. His parents were so thrilled, they made cannolis for the neurosurgeon. Yes, another cultural experience.

Originally published by The OCR
By DAVID WHITING | dwhiting@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: December 1, 2017 at 9:00 am | UPDATED: December 1, 2017

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