During his senior year in medical school, Dr. Michael Karasis ’70 decided to see the world beyond Midwestern cornfields. Accepted into a medical assistance program similar to Project Hope, he found himself trading the flat Illinois landscape for the jungles and waterfalls of New Guinea.
That trip to New Guinea marked his first traveling experience and his first step as a practicing surgeon. In the mountainside village of Wapenamanda, he operated from a mission hospital where each ward was no bigger than the typical American garage. In one instance, Karasis was called in to the hospital to care for a boy who had fallen out of a tree. The fledgling doctor performed surgery on the boy's depressed skull fracture at 3 a.m., with a heavy rain pounding on the roof.
“In America, medical students typically only observe surgeries,” Karasis says. “However, medical care in New Guinea is so scarce that it doesn't matter if you are a full-fledged surgeon, nor if the injury is in your area of specialization. As long as you are able to help, your skills are needed.”
“In the U.S., a patient can go to any one of a dozen different doctors and get good care,” he adds. “If a doctor doesn't have the proper tools or experience, the patient is sent to another doctor who does. You always find who you need because there are so many physicians in America.”
After 10 weeks in New Guinea, he was determined to return, but it took years to finish his residency and establish his practice as a urologist in Woodstock, Ill. So, 10 years after that initial trip, Karasis returned to Wapenamanda. Since then, he has returned every year or so to work a few weeks in the village. Last year marked his 18th trip to to that country.
When the citizens of New Guinea hear that Karasis has returned, people travel for miles to receive treatment for urological issues, including tumors in the bladder or kidney stones. During his recent visit, the urologist in the capitol was on leave, making Karasis the only urologist in the entire country. As he treats patients, he takes the opportunity to train the permanent doctor in basic urology when possible. Many diseases he treats are related to malnourishment and dehydration, problems he usually doesn't see in the U.S.
“Ninety percent of what they eat is sweet potatoes,” he says. “That's good food and full of vitamins, but it's not enough if you don't eat anything else.”
The time he spends in New Guinea constantly shifts his perspective: “You come back not taking things for granted.” For example, in America, surgical gloves are thrown away after one use. In New Guinea, he says, “They take gloves off and re-sterilize them. You use them as many times as possible, until they literally fall apart on your hands.”
He is also more aware of a general lack of appreciation for food in the U.S. Unsold food in his hospital cafeteria in the United States is thrown away at the end of the day. “That's enough food to keep a hospital going in New Guinea,” he says. “Things like that added up 100 times over give you a feeling of how differently they live compared to us.”
Most medical equipment in New Guinea is from the early 1950s, although things are improving. “A modern U.S. anesthesiologist might see a machine he doesn't know how to work,” Karasis says. When he first arrived, there wasn't an X-ray unit in Wapenamanda. “There was no way to take a chest X-ray,” he says. “You had to guess with a stethoscope.”
Karasis focuses on New Guinea to have more impact, since he doesn't need to learn new territory. “The more you do something repeatedly, the better you get at it,” he says. “Time is precious when you go overseas. I keep going back to New Guinea and try to make my visits more and more efficient.”
To Karasis, being a visiting doctor in New Guinea means, “You're doing what you'te trained to do, what you love to do, because the people need you.”
Karasis remembers his time at Millikin as “the greatest four years I ever lived.” Among his host of memories are the weekly assemblies held in the now-named Albert Taylor Theatre every Wednesday at 9 a.m. and again at 11:45 a.m. Assemblies were often lectures and discussions on far-ranging topics such as politics and the rise of LSD use. One particular assembly featured a one-act play Karasis wrote, performed by acting friends he rounded up from Mills Hall. The surrealist play told the story of Midge and Gwen, two sisters from the '60s, dressed in high boots and miniskirts, arguing on a warehouse rooftop. As their conflict escalates, figures from Illinois history enter from the building to add perspective to the argument. Throughout the play, lights flicker against a brick wall behind them, representing the historic Chicago fire that eventually interrupts their argument. After hearing from the first settler in Chicago, early Springfield politicians and Abe Lincoln, the girls decide that life is too short to continue living at odds with each other.
Although Karasis was too busy operating the spotlight for his production to hear much of the discussion afterward, he laughs when he recalls one friend' comment: “That was really weird, Karasis.”
Karasis eventually shifted his creative efforts from playwrighting to music. A composer and violinist, he has written several symphonies, concertos, oratorios and other works, including a 1997 symphony dedicated to Millikin. His works have been performed in the Chicago area, as well as by the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra. His oratorio, “Government Issue,” is a piece focused on the American experience in World War II. It was performed at Wheaton College last June in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
“I wanted to say ‘thanks’ in my own way to the veterans who fought in that war,” says Karasis. “Everything we have today is because of them.”