James Suen, M.D., Joins Medical Mission Team Treating Patients in Ukraine

By Linda Satter

As an otolaryngic surgeon who specializes in head and neck cancer, congenital vascular lesions of the head and neck, and diseases of the larynx, Suen was part of a diverse team of medical experts that spent a week in March treating patients in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.

Organized by the Dallas-based nonprofit group LEAP (Life Enhancement Association for People) Global Missions, in cooperation with the Christian Medical Association of Ukraine, the group treated babies and children with congenital deformities and adults with war injuries.

The plastic and reconstructive surgical care team worked out of three hospitals, including Okhmatdyt, the war-torn country’s largest children’s hospital.

Suen said he was happy to find a way to help the people of Ukraine.

“Since the war started, I have been watching and trying to understand,” Suen said. “I was seeing the horrors of the war, and I always felt I wanted to do something to help Ukraine.”

Steve Orten, M.D., a former resident of Suen’s who trained at UAMS, is now a facial plastic surgeon in Plano and Dallas, Texas. Orten has volunteered with LEAP for several years, and said that during a visit to Lviv last June with another doctor and a businessman, he met several doctors at Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital and was introduced to Rudolf Myhovych, head of the Christian Medical Association of Ukraine, who Orten continued to work with during subsequent visits.

Orten said that when other physicians in the United States volunteered to help, “we put together this team of about eight to 10 people and came over this time. This has been our biggest project yet.”

LEAP was founded in 1991 by Craig Hobar, M.D., a retired Dallas-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon. He and Suen were among the physicians who combined their expertise in craniofacial reconstructive surgery, dermatology, dentistry and otolaryngology to help the children and soldiers in Lviv.

For Suen, “one of the most difficult cases was a baby that had a vascular malformation in the neck. It was big,” he said, gesturing with his hands to indicate it was about the size of an adult fist, “and it was filled with blood vessels. I had to remove it out of the neck and save the nerves, and it went very well.”

In a video about the team’s visit, Myhovych said that for several days in a row, the surgeons “worked from 9 a.m. to about 8 p.m., performing multiple operations a day.”

He said the group made a huge impact because of the sterling qualifications of the volunteers and the connections they have with leaders in their countries, enabling them to spread the message of the impact the war is having on wounded soldiers and children to a broad international audience.

“We’re extremely thankful for your support,” he said in a video message to the group, “but we are begging you not to stop, because war is not going to stop anytime in the near future.”

“I’m very happy that I had something to offer, and I would hope to be able to do this again,” Suen said.

Orten said that probably the hardest part of the trip was getting medical supplies into Ukraine and trying to recover some supplies that were lost by the airlines.

According to the nonprofit’s website, “LEAP is ready and able to go wherever in the world there is a need for specialized surgical care. Our medical volunteers are highly qualified and skilled in providing the best care, even with limited resources. Those we serve receive the highest level of care possible regardless of religious affiliation or cultural differences.”

Suen chaired the UAMS Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery from 1974 to 2017. He was believed to be the longest serving otolaryngology chair in United States history when he stepped down May 1, 2017. He was succeeded by John Dornhoffer, M.D., who remains the department chair.

Suen also co-founded the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, now the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and served as the research center’s director from 2002 to 2007.