October 22, 2018

Dr. Robert “Matt” Bernstein

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” Maimonides wrote. “Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Dr. Robert “Matt” Bernstein, medical director of the Orthopaedic Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, applies this principle when teaching surgeons in developing countries how to perform pediatric orthopedic surgical procedures. He knows that children with painful, sometimes incapacitating conditions such as bone fractures, clubfeet or scoliosis may suffer throughout their lives if they can’t get proper treatment.

Bernstein’s odyssey began in 2007, when he performed corrective surgery on a Cambodian girl with a spinal deformity. The 14-year-old orphan, Lyda, had been sent by an aid organization to Los Angeles for the procedure and was supposed to recover with a local host family here. At the last minute, the family backed out. 

“I called my wife and asked, ‘Can I bring home a 14-year-old Cambodian girl?’ ” he said. The child lived with the Bernsteins for more than four months. 

After that, the family traveled to Phnom Penh to visit Lyda, and there, Bernstein contacted a local hospital and arranged to perform surgeries, along with his father, the late Saul Bernstein, who also was an orthopedic surgeon. During the same trip, his wife, Carol Cozen Bernstein, and their four children volunteered at a local orphanage.

Seeing the great need for his specialty, Bernstein conferred with others and conceived of a teaching program for pediatric orthopedics. 

“There are different ways of running these sorts of outreach programs,” he said. “You can go and give a lecture, but that doesn’t do very much. You can go and do cases, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. You can take a team over, but when the team leaves, the program is gone. … Or you can go and teach, and leave the knowledge behind.”

In 2008, Bernstein formed Mobile Pediatric Orthopedic Education, or MoPOEd, to teach Cambodian surgeons how to perform pediatric orthopedic surgeries. He recruited his Cedars colleague, Dr. Bill Hohl, along with about 15 other peers from the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America. Each agreed to take a two-week trip to Cambodia to teach and operate with local surgeons, using existing equipment. 

MoPOEd (pronounced MO-ped) handled logistics and paid for room, board, airfare and some supplies with funding from the Ronald McDonald House Charities, private donors, and Bernstein’s family and friends.

The two-year initiative supplied an orthopedic surgeon for two weeks of each month. Six Cambodian surgeons learned to do orthopedic procedures — and how to teach their peers. In 2011, MoPOEd initiated a similar program in Mozambique. Bernstein now wants to bring MoPOEd to Mongolia but has not been able to muster sufficient funds. 

Bernstein has traveled internationally for MoPOEd or other medical aid missions 14 times since 2008, and he credits his father for his career choice. “My dad was a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. I got to make rounds with him when I was little, and I wanted to be like him,” he said. For 10 years, father and son were both on staff at Cedars-Sinai. “I got to operate twice a week with him. I was the luckiest guy in the world.

“If you really want to talk about a mensch, that’s my dad,” Bernstein said. “He’s the mensch.”

Sounds as if it runs in the family.

Readers who wish to support MoPOEd can do so via the Mending Kids website, mendingkids.org, by specifying MoPOEd on their donation.