Dr. Domingo Alvear’s began in his native Philippines, inspired by a country-doctor uncle who let his nephew tag along as he made house calls in a bouncing Jeep. Six decades later, Alvear is retiring after both a long career as a pediatric surgeon in Harrisburg and as a founder of the nonprofit World Surgical Foundation (WSF).
“Two things have guided me,” Alvear said. “One is vision and one is legacy. Most doctors—most people actually—have blinders like horses. They don’t want to see what’s on the side. They just want to see what’s in front of them.”
But, Alvear said, there’s a whole world around them that doctors should expose themselves to.
“My advice is to become part of the community,” he said. “Get involved and see where you can contribute.”
Alvear began his career in medical school in the Philippines, guided by a professor who noticed he had “surgical potential.” A later internship at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines proved invaluable. It was 1964, and the Vietnam War was escalating. He served an extra year, performing about 3,000 operations on both soldiers and civilians.
Next, he arrived stateside for a residency at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, where a chance encounter with an infant patient opened his eyes to pediatric surgery. He shadowed the baby’s case and was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia under pioneering pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop, who later would become U.S. surgeon general. Rather than returning to the Philippines, where a revolution was underway, he travelled to Harrisburg to set up his practice.
“My mentor from Clark AFB, Dr. Lewis Patterson, was here in Harrisburg,” he said. “He asked me to come, and, well, I stayed.”
In 1973, when Alvear established his private surgical practice serving Polyclinic and Harrisburg Hospitals—now PinnacleHealth—there wasn’t one neonatologist in the Harrisburg region. Today, he’s retiring as PinnacleHealth’s chief of pediatric surgery.
“Dr. Alvear is a pioneer in pediatrics for our community,” says Phil Guarneschelli, president and CEO of PinnacleHealth. “Because of his willingness to come to Harrisburg and grow his career in pediatric surgery, we’ve been the beneficiaries of his vision for better health for children locally and throughout the world. With his leadership, the first neonatal intensive care units in Harrisburg were opened, and thousands of children experienced healing at his hands.”
So Many More
Alvear, a longtime Silver Spring Township resident, said he enjoyed volunteering throughout the Harrisburg region, but hoped for even greater impact.
“Service is good, but it doesn’t do anything long term,” he said. “This is why you have to develop relationships and programs to improve care—that’s legacy.”
In 1997, he founded the World Surgical Foundation, which averages three medical mission trips annually to underserved corners of the world. That’s more than 60 trips to at least seven countries, including Alvear’s homeland of the Philippines. He has performed surgeries to correct malformations, cleft palates, abdominal and intestinal issues and more, donating his time and talents to each case.
About 20 volunteers join Alvear on each WSF mission—medical professionals across all specialties. Local (foreign) doctors also often receive training and equipment.\
“Dr. Alvear is a phenomenal surgeon—he does intricate pediatric surgery,” said Dr. Chinh Pham, a general surgeon at Geisinger Holy Spirit. “But he is also very compassionate, organizational and hard-working.”
Pham, a WSF board member, has joined Alvear on two trips, with a third planned this month.
“It’s a huge undertaking to go on these mission trips, with all the logistics,” said Pham. “Travel and airfare, supplies, equipment, paperwork—so many things are involved in surgeries. All things we take for granted when we operate in the U.S., we bring to remote locations.”
Although Alvear is retiring from PinnacleHealth, he may never truly retire from WSF. The organization is sending mission teams to Honduras in September and to Nigeria for the first time in November. Alvear is accompanying both.
“I just had this conversation with my wife,” said Alvear. “She said, ‘Why can’t you stay home?’ And I said, ‘We’ll be home, wherever we are [in the world].’”
A young Honduran girl, Kylin Velez, may be the most memorable of all the WSF patients Alvear has served. Her esophagus was shattered when she was shot in the chest as an innocent bystander to a drug bust.
“I saw her in a clinic in Honduras, and she was skin and bones,” Alvear said. “They wanted me to replace her esophagus, but she wouldn’t have made it.”
Alvear arranged for her to be brought to central PA, where she gained 60 pounds in three months on a nutrient-rich diet at York Hospital.
“Pinnacle allowed me to do a free operation for the first time, to give her a new esophagus,” he said. “She went home after six months. I saw her [back in Honduras] last time, and I hardly recognized her—she’s a beautiful young lady now.”
Then he paused, tears in his eyes.
“There are so many more,” he said. “So many more who need help.”
The World Surgical Foundation will hold its 20th anniversary gala tribute and fundraiser, “We Are All One People: How the Power of One Can Change the Lives of Many,” on Sept. 17, at Whitaker Center, Harrisburg. The event also will recognize Dr. Alvear’s retirement. For tickets, visit www.whitakercenter.org. For more information on WSF, visit www.worldsurgicalfoundation.org.