A rugged osteotome and a dedicated man

A rugged osteotome mounted on three pieces of Brazilian wood tells the story of Dr. Joe Pilon and his compassionate drive to heal people.  

The orthopedic surgeon probably held a hundred such instruments during his four decades in practice, but none like the one that saved his first medical mission trip and the bones he was able to repair on that memorable trip.

A phone call from his friend, Father Luke Tupper, M.D., who was working as a missionary/medical doctor and needed help with a specific case, first drew him to Brazil.

“I said, ‘We’ll see what I can do. You got any equipment?’ He said ‘No, you’d better bring it with you,’” Dr. Pilon said.

So, he packed up the equipment he would need, temporarily closed his practice and headed south to work with Fr. Tupper aboard the Esperanca. The vessel’s name means hope and it offered that as it made its way up and down the Amazon providing vaccines and medical care to people in desperate need.

That first trip hit a snag almost immediately as agents confiscated Dr. Pilon’s medical equipment when he crossed the border, forcing him to arrive empty handed.

“We sat down at supper and I said, ‘Well, I might as well go home,” he said.

But a very handy Franciscan named Brother Billie Joe said he thought he could help. He went to his shop and fashioned an osteotome out of a welded stove bolt.

“I told him it had to be sharp enough to shave the hair off my arm,” Dr. Pilon said. It was, and the amenable doctor used the stove bolt osteotome in his surgeries.

In his subsequent trips, Dr. Pilon ran into other challenges that required human innovation and divine inspiration. 

One afternoon, the water supply to the little floating hospital slowed to a drip. 

“Brother Harry went down there under the boat and there were piranhas down there, but he went down anyway,” Dr. Pilon said. “He came back up and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is there has been a dead fish lodged in your intake valve the whole time you were scrubbing. The good news is that the water flows very fast. So, Harry cleared the intake and we went on with our surgeries.”

In his work both in Brazil and at the Bugando Medical Centre in Mwanza, Tanzania, Dr. Pilon saw incredible heartache and performed some miraculous repairs. He treated a young man who had an arrow lodged in his head for months, and worked to help burn victims recover. 

“I can still hear those screams,” Dr. Pilon said. “To remove a dressing from a child is just a really painful thing to have to do.”

The hospital in Tanzania didn’t have a sterilizer. They hung their sheets out on bushes to dry and would put those back on the hospital beds. Often, two patients would share a bed and the patients’ families would have to provide their food.

“I know what poor looks like,” Dr. Pilon said. “I saw it in Brazil but it was worse in Africa. Unbelievably worse.”

Though the task seemed overwhelming at times, the ability to provide a service drew Dr. Pilon back again and again. He raised funds to provide medical equipment and convinced his children to act as “sherpas”, ferrying the equipment from the Fox Valley to Tanzania and Uganda.

According to his daughter Felicia, Dr. Pilon’s drive to help people transcends every area of his life.

“He has been like that all our lives – reflective, intentional with his gifts, strong. He likes taking care of people,” she said.

(The following photos are courtesy of the Pilon family. Also, if you want to read more about the adventures of Dr. Pilon and his surgical nurse Pat Wittmann, you can read this story in a 2003 edition of the Compass.)

Dr. Pilon’s ability to treat people in challenging conditions spanned his entire career, including during the years he served in Vietnam.
He bonded with all his patients, but especially the children. Dr. Pilon was in Vietnam when he learned of the birth of his second daughter, Stephanie. “I almost did backflips down the road I was so excited,” he said.
Here he is treating a baby in a crowded waiting room in Brazil.
Many of his patients in Brazil suffered from club feet. He used the osteotome in surgeries to repair and reset those bones.
The results were dramatic and life changing.
The doctor had to tote his own medical supplies.
So he and his wife Stephanie raised funds and collected as much equipment as they could physically transfer to places like Brazil. The van behind them is full of medical supplies.
Sometimes, he recruited his kids to act as his “sherpas”, ferrying the equipment to the far flung hospitals, staying a few days to see their dad in action, and then heading back home. On the trip pictured here, his sherpas were his sons Joe, Matt and Luke and his daughter Erin.
Dr. Pilon and Dr. Dass, a Bugando Medical Center physician.
Without a sterilizer, hospital employees washed the bed sheets and laid them out on bushes to dry. Then they put them right back on the beds.
Patients shared beds at the hospital in Tanzania and their families provided their food.
This is the stove bolt osteotome Dr. Pilon used for that first surgery in Brazil.

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