On a medical mission trip to Kenya, Dr. Barry Inabnet ’83 saw how faith can influence a field where science and reason typically rule.
Until a trip to Africa earlier this year, Dr. Barry Inabnet ’83 had found that, in his profession, reason almost always trumped faith. Inabnet, a surgeon, is a pioneer of what’s called “scarless” thyroid surgery and an expert in the field of minimally invasive endocrine surgery. His journey to the top ranks of academic medicine began at Episcopal — where he played varsity soccer, ran track, helped edit the yearbook, and volunteered at Arlington Hospital during his senior elective — and included undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellowship in surgical endocrinology at Cochin Hospital in Paris. Recently, he was named the Johnston-Wright Endowed Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Kentucky after more than 20 years in leadership roles in the Mount Sinai Health System and at Columbia University in New York City.
Yet as he scaled the heights of a staunchly secular field, Inabnet found that his Christian faith grew increasingly important to him personally. Raised attending the First Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., he grew deeper in his faith upon meeting his wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 2001. Through a trusted partner in his department at Mount Sinai who is a missionary surgeon, he became interested in the work of the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons, or PAACS, a nondenominational nonprofit organization that trains general surgeons in Africa.
The PAACS founder, Dr. David Thompson, laid the groundwork for the organization while working in a missionary hospital in Gabon in the late 1990s. Parts of Africa have only one surgeon for every 2.5 million people, and Thompson realized that many Africans were getting medical training in the United States, then staying abroad. Through PAACS, he hoped to bolster the ranks of Africans committed to caring for residents of their home countries. PAACS has grown to include 12 training programs in eight African countries and has graduated more than 100 surgeons from the program, all of whom practice in Africa.
In February, Inabnet led a 14-day PAACS mission trip to Kenya with several colleagues from Mount Sinai. They first served as faculty at a skills training conference for 48 PAACS general surgery residents and then joined the staff of Tenwek Hospital, a PAACS training site and one of Africa’s largest mission hospitals, providing surgical care to more than 8.5 milllion residents in the southwestern corner of Kenya. The work at Tenwek was particularly invigorating for Inabnet as he and his colleagues dealt with cases that included advanced tumors, massive thyroid goiters, penetrating and blunt trauma, burns, and neurosurgery. “I will always remember how the missionary surgeons performed surgery and delivered care at the highest level in an environment of unbelievably limited resources,” he says.
PAACS doctors from all over the world worked alongside Inabnet at Tenwek. They were helping to teach the hospital’s residents, but he found he learned from the residents as well. “They trained us, we trained them,” he says. “It was humbling to have senior residents take me through operations that I haven’t performed in years.”
Working with PAACS, Inabnet also relished the chance to bring his faith to bear on his work. The doctors prayed when meeting patients and before surgery. Tenwek’s motto is “We treat — Jesus heals,” and psalms and Bible scripture are posted on walls throughout the hospital.
Before arriving at Tenwek, Inabnet felt the power of such prayer in a personal way. A friend from the States called him with word that his son had suffered a fractured mandible in a skiing accident. Just before the boy went into surgery, the friend asked Inabnet to pray for a successful procedure and recovery. At that moment, Inabnet was overseeing a laparoscopic skills training lab with eight PAACS residents, but the group stopped its session and collectively prayed.
“Working in an environment where faith is front and center was transformative for me,” he says.
After his return to the States, Inabnet began talking with PAACS about joining its leadership. And thanks to his experience, he made it a point in his interview process with University of Kentucky officials to talk about international-relief work as a key for medical education. He hopes to build in an international rotation for surgeons training at the university, perhaps through PAACS. And, despite the busyness of his new job and his family’s move, he’s making plans to go on the next PAACS mission trip. It’s scheduled for 2021.