Michigan DO’s passion for surgery spurs four decades of annual missions

Every summer for the past 42 years, Harris M. Mainster, DO, has spent six weeks in the developing world performing surgery.


When Harris W. Mainster, DO, finished his general surgery residency in 1964, he hoped to join the Peace Corps with his wife, a professor of English literature. But at the time, the organization did not allow married couples with young children to volunteer.

Their passion to serve the underserved unabated, the Mainsters decided to take matters into their own hands and sought opportunities to bring Dr. Mainster’s surgical skills to the remotest reaches of the world. Every summer for the past 42 years, the Mainsters have spent roughly six weeks in a less-developed locale. While Dr. Mainster performs surgical procedures and instructs local doctors in modern techniques, his wife teaches English language classes and sometimes assists her husband as an administrator and interpreter. Until they entered college, the Mainsters’ daughters traveled with them and often attended school with local children, absorbing new languages and customs.

Visiting a different country each year, Dr. Mainster has volunteered in New Guinea, Nepal, Borneo, Haiti, Peru, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uganda and Burundi, to name just a few. He has also ministered to the surgical needs of Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and in Kotzebue, Alaska.

“Harris is as interested in teaching as he is in doing surgery, which is why we go from place to place,” says his wife, Phoebe Mainster, PhD. “He hopes that what he leaves behind will be shared for the next several generations of physicians.”

Dr. Mainster vividly remembers his first surgical mission—at a Catholic hospital serving Miskito Indians in the rainforest of eastern Nicaragua. He learned of the hospital’s need for a surgeon through a physician friend who knew a priest in the area.

“My friend gave me a name and a number, and Phoebe and I and our children set off for Nicaragua just like that,” recalls Dr. Mainster, the chairman of surgery at Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich. “And we had a marvelous experience. The bishop of that area met us and took us to an attic where we stayed, and our kids went to school in the village. And we were hooked.”

In the Nicaraguan village, which is about 60 miles by boat to the nearest road and 200 miles from Managua, many men had enlarged prostates. “They couldn’t urinate, so they would self-catherize,” Dr. Mainster says. “I taught local doctors how to do superpubic prostatectomies so these men wouldn’t have to catherize themselves all the time.”

The next year, Dr. Mainster learned of an opportunity to serve in Azamgarh, India, a town that had been overwhelmed by Indian refugees forced out of Myanmar. And the year after that, the Mainsters traveled to Liberia at the urging of a former Botsford resident from that country. For several years, Dr. Mainster volunteered in various hospitals in Asia, the South Pacific region and Africa run by the Seventh-day Adventists.

In each country, he encountered different medical problems, as well as health care workers with varying levels of training. In Pago Pago, American Samoa, he helped “expand the repertoire” of a surgical technician who had been trained in Fiji to do specific procedures. “I loved every minute of it,” Dr. Mainster says. “Samoa is a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific. It’s paradise.”

In one of his most emotionally charged missions, Dr. Mainster, who is Jewish, helped upgrade the surgical division of a historically Jewish hospital in Riga, Latvia. Over the years, the hospital had been controlled by Russians, then Nazis who executed the Jewish physicians, then Russians again. After Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country attempted to restore private property to anyone who could prove ownership. As part of this initiative, the government decided to return the Jewish hospital to Riga’s Jewish community.

“The plan was to make the Jewish hospital in Riga the best hospital around,” Dr. Mainster says.

Ironically, though, very few of the hospital’s patients were Jewish. As Dr. Mainster found out, some of the older Latvian men he treated had German veterans’ insurance because they joined the German Army during World War II to fight the Russians.

“I asked one of these men, ‘Doesn’t it bother you that I’m Jewish?’ He said, ‘Not at all. We know that Jews are the best doctors.’ ”

While most of his experiences have been positive, Dr. Mainster has faced danger.

“In Chipata, Zambia, I was arrested for taking a picture of a post office, which is illegal there,” he remembers. “They took me to jail, but they didn’t arrest Phoebe. So she went to the administrator of the missionary hospital where I was volunteering and got him to write a letter saying that I was not a spy.

“They released me from jail and let me have my camera. But they kept my film.

“I took the photo simply because the building had the city’s name on it, and I wanted a memento.”

Zest for work, adventure

Dr. Mainster’s surgical partner for more than 30 years, Gerald R. Swiacki, DO, experienced his friend’s adventures vicariously. Every trip yielded fascinating anecdotes.

“For example, when Harris got back from New Guinea one year, I asked him, ‘What was the biggest medical problem you saw there?’ And he said burns. The mountain people of New Guinea would sleep by a fire to keep warm and sometimes would accidentally roll on top of it, especially if they had too much to drink the night before.”

Because surgery is such a demanding occupation, Dr. Swiacki points out that most surgeons, including himself, prefer to relax on their vacations—but not Dr. Mainster.

“He loves to work. He loves to do surgery. He loves to take care of his patients. And he is indefatigable,” says Dr. Swiacki, who now practices in Marco Island, Fla.

Botsford CEO Paul E. LaCasse, DO, says that Dr. Mainster is exceptional in his dedication to helping those less fortunate around the world.

“I know several physicians who have given of their time, but I don’t know any other couple as consistently committed as the Mainsters are to sharing their knowledge and skills in underserved areas,” Dr. LaCasse says.

In early July, the Mainsters are traveling to Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. At a hospital with which Botsford has a relationship, Dr. Mainster will be training surgeons in how to do laparoscopic surgery. Botsford and the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing are also hoping to establish rotation sites at the Merida hospital.

“Most doctors don’t want to take their vacation and do what I do,” Dr. Mainster says. “But I like to work. I find it just so incredibly rewarding, and that’s what I want to do. And I’m fortunate that my wife wants to do the same thing.”


  1. Edward A. Loniewski, D.O.

    I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Dr. Mainster since his residency. He is truly a gifted amazing surgeon with a passion to serve the underserved as evidenced by his 42 years of mission work, which he pioneered way before any of the nations he visited knew what a D.O. was, he broke many barriers for the osteopathic profession. His wife Phobe shares the same passion and has been an asset to Harris’s accomplishments. Great deserving article.

  2. Gary A. Gramm, DO

    Great article regarding Dr. Mainster. As an intern in the class of 1972-73, and thereafter as an attending in the ER at Botsford General, I found Dr.Mainster to be a great mentor and learning resouce. As a surgeon he was always receptive and pleasant when his services were requested. Bravo Dr. Mainster.

  3. Paul H. Caldron, DO

    Many physicians provide pro-bono services in developing countries on short-term medical missions (STMMs) at some time in their careers. Dr. Mainster is clearly an outlier in this area. Currently I am pursuing a PhD dissertation related to STMMs and would appreciate the opportunity to interview Dr. Mainster and his wife, Dr. Mainster at some point. It is possible to facilitate a contact? Kind regards.

  4. Tran Quan

    I am a family physician. I would like to get involved with international medical missions. Is there a humanitarian group that Dr.Mainster works with?

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