Michelle Bleynat Vessely Bertucci Class of 1980
Otolaryngologist Lake Oswego, Oregon

I believe that if you have been given a gift, you should use it to help people. With these simple words, Michelle Bleynat Vessely Bertucci expresses the philosophy of her life and career.

Michelle is an otolaryngologist, commonly known as an ENT, who maintains two practices, general and cosmetic, in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Yet, as if her life were not full enough with patients and procedures, she also serves as president of the Global Medical and Surgical Teams (GMAST), an organization that sponsors trips to countries in Africa and Latin America to perform cleft lip and palate repairs for children who have no other option.

As early as my junior high days, I wanted to help people, says Michelle. She began to choose classes that would benefit her in the quest. I enjoyed studying French in junior high with Emma Draughn, and I continued at East Burke, where teachers Roy Sweezy and Barbara Bliss emphasized the importance of knowing foreign languages, learning about other cultures and also encouraged our desire to travel. The foundation of studying French helped me later when I studied Italian on my own. Another high school experience that influenced me greatly was participation in marching and concert bands. Doing so not only deepened my appreciation of the performing arts but also added extra layers of discipline, collaboration, and responsibility. I also have to mention how important it is to be able to write. Its a skill that everyone should master. I appreciate the guidance of Sherron Prewitt and other English teachers who made such a difference. Mrs. Prewitt was even kind enough to read the essay that I wrote when I applied for medical school. I feel so fortunate to have had such dedicated instructors in all the subjects.

One of the most memorable and important experiences of my high school days was having the exciting opportunity to take an independent study class in anatomy. East Burke offered so many fine classes, but I wanted to go more in depth in my study of anatomy, so the science department arranged for me to study the subject on my own with faculty guidance. Being able to explore a subject that I found interesting not only gave me a great foundation but also helped me think more clearly about my possible career path.

A hugely important part of my teenage years centered around my work at Valdese General Hospital. When I was fifteen, I decided it was time for me to become a candy striper, so I showed up with that goal in mind. But Dr. Richard Neale, who knew me already, spotted me and said no and decided right there that I should be what he called a lab girl. From then on, I worked in the lab at the hospital, where I had many learning experiences including drawing blood, administering EKGs, testing urine samples and blood smears, working with the tiny babies, even witnessing death. My work in the lab continued all through high school and even during college breaks when I was home. It was truly one of the most enriching experiences of my early life and instilled in me even more deeply the desire to study medicine and help people.

Michelles involvement with Waldensian Presbyterian Church throughout her youth strengthened her faith and inspired her to live out her faith through her work and her volunteering. She also had many role models among her family members and they paved the way for her to give back to her community. Among them are fellow East Burke High grads Emily Bleynat Chapman and Edward Bleynat, Jr. Interestingly, her uncle John Bleynat was instrumental in developing East Burke High School while chairing the Burke County School Board and the Burke County Commissioners.

Michelle studied at UNC-Chapel Hill where she earned her undergraduate degree and graduated from medical school in 1988. Her residency was done at the University of Missouri in Columbia and was completed in 1993. She also holds a certificate of Global Health from both OHSU and Johns Hopkins and in the spring of 2020 received her Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I initially thought I would be either a pediatrician or a cardiologist, but, when I got to medical school, I was assigned to an ENT rotation (half of the class did ENT and the other half rotated on Ophthalmology). It turned out to be a fortuitous assignment because I ultimately applied and was accepted to an ENT residency. This career option allows me to treat people of all ages, I can perform surgery and see patients in the clinic, and I have enjoyed long-term relationships with many patients, sometimes spanning three generations in a family.

But Michelles medical opportunities did not stop with her private practice, and she has been able to expand her reach on a global platform.

I had always wanted to go on medical mission trips. It was a dream that began when I was in medical school, but practicing medicine and raising a family seemed to take all the time and energy that I had. Finally, in 2008 I thought the kids were old enough, and I jumped at the opportunity to travel to Mexico with a multi-specialty medical group. We set up a MASH like makeshift hospital in a school up in the mountains of Puebla, Mexico, and set to work. We had three operating tables and three surgical teams and three patients in one room, and we performed hundreds of operations in a two-week period that summer. I was hooked! I loved the instinctive, basic interaction between patient and doctor with no concern for payment, insurance, copays, or preauthorization. It was back to the basics of matching someone with a medical need and someone with the skill to fill that need. Well, okay, there is that other thingalso, I love to travel. Since that first trip in 2008, I have had many amazing opportunities to travel once or twice a year to Zambia, Kenya, and Ecuador on cleft lip and palate trips. Ive met some absolutely incredible people, like the parents and guardians who will ride buses from hundreds of miles away or walk for hours to seek help for their precious children. And Ive met the children, hundreds of children named Blessing, Tuesday, Elvis, Joy, Beauty, Hope. Ive met many skilled surgeons, anesthetists, nurses, and speech therapists who are willing to give up their vacation time and spend their hard-earned money to go sleep on hard cots, take cold showers, slather on DEET, eat delicious and sometimes not so delicious foods, get a bunch of vaccines, risk travelers diarrheaand love it. There really is nothing like seeing a mothers face when she first sees her child after a cleft lip repair. Really. Nothing like it.

But having the traveling teams perform these surgeries is not the ultimate goal. It is important for local doctors and other medical staff to become trained so that they can help these children. So GMAST has worked hard to invest in infrastructure, personnel, training, and operating facilities so that the local staff can perform the surgeries themselves. GMAST recently assisted one medical center in Uganda obtain approval (and hence funding and training opportunities) by SmileTrain, the international non-profit organization that specializes in cleft lip and palate surgeries around the world.

My dream with Global Medical and Surgical Teams is to offer the framework and support for others to fulfill their dreams of helping those in need, one operation at a time, one smile at a time, one trip at a time. For now, were focusing on cleft lip and palate surgery. But it is also about teaching each other and teaching our hosts and learning from our hosts. My observation over the years is that we need to encourage sustainable medical care. Many areas of the world do not have adequate numbers of medical professionals to provide even the most basic of medical care, much less specialized surgical procedures. I want to be part of the solutionto get to the point where each country has the infrastructure and adequate numbers of well-trained medical professionals to care for their own citizens. So, to me, the teaching is just as important as the surgery. My commitment to this cause was the reason that it was so important to me to earn my MPH through Johns Hopkins in my spare time. Public Health has a mantra of saving millions of lives at a time. Surgery saves one life or gives one smile at a time. The two approaches are very different but equally important. The time is now to work together through teaching, surgery, and public health to allow all people access to life-saving and life-changing medical and surgical care.

I am grateful for the opportunities that allowed me to become a physician, and I feel called to share these gifts with others. It gives me great joy to help alleviate the suffering of those who do not have the resources to access this type of medical care. As I look at the daunting tasks associated with planning these trips, I often feel inadequate and stretched. Then I remember these words by theologian Frederick Buechner: The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the worlds deep hunger meet. For me, this is traveling to distant places to serve patients who would otherwise not receive care.

Published August 2020

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