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Jerry Costello

A Doctor Rediscovers the Joy of Practicing Medicine

“In reality, I’m an older physician. I’m nearing retirement. But it turns out my skill set, which is based on an older set of skills, before we had a lot of technology, is valuable overseas.”

                Dr. Mark E. Helbraun spoke those words earlier this year to Virginia Rohan, a staff writer for The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, and they help explain why he’s spent much of the last few years volunteering his medical services in various parts of the world—and why he keeps going back for more.

                “It has evolved to the point where I come back and deal with the insurance companies and the bureaucracy and the computers and I say, ‘I can’t wait till I get overseas again,’ because there, you’re doing all the things you presumably went into the medical profession for. It does more for your heart than anything else I can imagine.”

                Dr. Helbraun, a colon and rectal surgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center, was 69 at the time of his interview. He had made his first overseas medical mission trip to Eritrea, in Africa, when he was 56, and it was an eye-opening experience.

                “I saw that there was a need for some medical work to be done, and I really found that they were an amazing people. I got really excited about going back there.”

                Thus was a second career born. Dr. Helbraun made four trips to Eritrea in all, as well as medical visits to Nigeria, Niger and Rwanda, usually carving out two weeks for each trip. In recent years, he’s concentrated his overseas medical practice to Vietnam, following a trip there and recognizing the need that exists.

                Dr. Helbraun, a graduate of Amherst College and Wayne State University Medical School, who perfected his surgical skills at Boston’s Lahey Clinic, lives in Closter, New Jersey, with his wife. They have two adult children. 

                At a meeting with his fellow physicians, at which he was presented with the John Theurer Cancer Center’s Lifetime Achievement Humanitarian Award, he encouraged his listeners to make overseas trips of their own.

                “If I accomplish nothing else today I hope I can encourage some of you,” he said. “It would be good for you, it’s good for those people, and it’s what I call soft diplomacy—very good for our country.”

                Dr. Helbraun clearly enjoys all of his overseas experience, particularly working in Vietnam. Of his “Hanoi son,” surgeon Phuc Khanh, he said the man’s own father had died at a young age and “he was sort of in need of a father. We began working together, and it’s really been like a father-son relationship.”  And of yet another physician, Pham Duc Huan, Dr. Helbraun describes him matter-of-factly as “the smartest surgeon I ever worked with.”

                The Bergen County doctor has completed nine journeys to Vietnam, and by the time you read this may have chalked up number 10. He says that the experience of the trips themselves, and the personal relationships he develops, “are the things I really cherish.”