Local Doctor Goes Where He's Needed Most

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One of the reasons Dr. Gary Cornette became a medical professional is that he wanted to help those for whom health care was unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

Today, Cornette is living that dream. It's just that he has to go to places like Guatemala to do it.

"Because of the way the American health care system has evolved in this country, it's difficult because of licensing and malpractice to go into a needy area," Cornette said. "It would take months and months of wading through the bureaucracy to be able to do that.

"It's easier to provide that care to a Third World country. The people really appreciate it they aren't used to anyone taking care of them and the Guatemalan government welcomes us with open arms."

Cornette just spent two weeks in the rain forests surrounding Antigua, Guatemala. It was his second consecutive annual mission in that part of Central America and his sixth as a volunteer for Do Care International, a group of osteopathic physicians from four medical schools: The Phoenix Midwestern University, Michigan State University, Nova University in Miami, and the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City, where Cornette taught the gastrointestinal portion of the curriculum.

From Feb. 9 to 29, Cornette Payson's only gastro-enterologist spent most of his time in Santa Maria de Jesus, a tiny village at the base of an active volcano. There, he joined a team of other medical specialists to offer treatment to some 3,000 Mayan Indian patients who live in a world where health care simply doesn't exist.

Cornette worked 12 days straight, through a non-stop parade of about 240 people with all manner of gastro-intestinal complaints, including "a bacterial infection of the stomach that was in about 85 percent of the patients I saw.

"They have a high infant mortality rate because there is no prenatal care," Cornette said. "Sanitation's a problem; they don't have clean water or sewage systems that work. There is overcrowding, with lots of people living in the same hut, often with dogs and chickens and pigs roaming in and out. And all the kids tend to sleep in the same bed, so if one kid has parasites and worms, they're all gonna have them."

But not all of their ills are due to disease, the doctor observed.

"We had a young girl, about 20 years old, who had abdominal pain and some bleeding. We examined her, and we couldn't come up with much on the exam. But I was lucky enough to have a female interpreter that day ... who found out that the girl had been raped four months before by a group of hooligans who roam the fields there. She had been traumatized.

"I was able to examine her and put her on some local medication that I think is going to help, but there was nothing else we could do. These things go unreported and uninvestigated down there."

Despite such frustrations, Cornette says he returned from his latest mission with "a great deal of satisfaction. I think we are making a difference in health care there ... plus, we take medical students with us, and they get to do some hands-on examinations and evaluations. So it's a win-win situation.

"The Guatemalans help us, and we help them."

The making of a doctor

Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, just under 52 years ago, Cornette lingered in his hometown long enough to graduate from its high school. He then attended Davidson College in North Carolina with plans to become an engineer a career goal that went by the wayside after Cornette landed a job as a hospital orderly.

"Prior to that, I hadn't been around hospitals much," he said. "I realized that they offered you the chance to do some good."

Still, Cornette didn't decide what direction to take until he discovered gastro-enterology as a senior medical student.

About 17 years after he helped start a two-doctor group practice in Kansas City and that practice evolved into a large corporation with 12 physicians Cornette decided he was ready for a radical change of scenery.

"In 1999, I was attending a conference in Phoenix, and I got wind that they were looking for a gastro-enterologist in Payson. So I drove up here, loved the place, sat down with the administrator (at Samaritan Health Center), and hammered out a deal."

Despite Cornette's dedication to his patients, both in Payson and the Third World, he is not an all-work kind of guy. In fact, he throws nearly identical passion into his extreme sport of choice: mountain and road biking which Cornette loves so much that, for six weeks in 2000, he participated in a Seattle-to-Washington D.C. ride that benefited the American Lung Association to the tune of some $2 million.

Gary Cornette is a man who finds ways to help people even when he's at play.

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