Portland doctor travels the world to provide breast care

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PORTLAND — Dr. Suzanne Hoekstra believes she has become a better surgeon by “figuring out how to do more with less.”

The director of the Breast Care Specialists of Maine at Mercy Hospital has been at Mercy for the past eight years. During much of that time she’s offered breast care to women all over the world, from Haiti to Uganda and Thailand to Honduras via medical mission trips.

This fall she’ll take her second trip to Bangladesh, where she performs surgery at the National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital in Dhaka, the capital city.

Hoekstra said she uses her vacation time to participate in medical missions because “I feel like I can make a difference and it’s great to develop ongoing relationships with the local doctors.”

She also calls the trips “very centering. It makes you realize how much you don’t really need” – from constant internet access to the latest medical equipment.

In addition, Hoekstra said the mission trips “stretch my skills and present (a variety) of challenges” from bugs and dim lights in the operating room to limited mammography and breast imaging machines.

It’s also important for her to offer free, quality care to patients who often can’t pay for the medical care they need. “In a lot of countries if you can’t pay, you simply don’t get the care,” Hoekstra said.

Along with performing surgery, Hoekstra also provides education, sometimes to women themselves and often to the local medical professionals on the ground.

For instance, on one of her recent trips one of the goals was to teach women to give each other breast exams. Hoekstra said the biggest factor in treating breast cancer successfully, whether it’s in a first world or developing country, is catching it early.

Although she mostly treats breast cancer, Hoekstra said her practice covers any type of breast care, from infections to pain and cysts to offering genetic screening.

Basically “any sort of abnormal imaging” of a patient’s breast “would trigger a referral,” she said. Hoekstra is one of two surgeons at the Breast Care Specialists of Maine, which is a nationally accredited center of excellence.

There’s no typical day for Hoekstra, but some days are spent in her office off the Fore River Parkway, and some are spent performing surgery at the hospital in downtown Portland.

Hoekstra sees patients “from all over Maine and New Hampshire” and even some from Massachusetts. She earned her medical degree at the Southern Illinois School of Medicine and did her residency at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

That’s where she first became interested in breast care as a specialty, partly because her mentor was able to introduce her to a number of emerging technologies, from new types of biopsy to genetic testing.

Hoekstra has been a doctor for more than 20 years and, before coming to Maine, she practiced in North Carolina. While she’s hasn’t lived in the Midwest for years, Hoekstra is still an avid Chicago Cubs fan and she’s also a big supporter of Loyola University basketball.

She lives in Portland with her husband, who is a musician. The couple have four children, and their youngest is graduating from Portland High School this spring.

Hoekstra moved to Maine to take up the surgical post at Mercy’s breast center and what she most enjoys about her work is “the real team approach” and the “continuum of care” she’s able to offer, particularly with the help of nurse navigators, who, she said, “play a huge role and are a great asset.”

“I like knowing I can call anyone else on the team anytime. We really have an all hands on deck” mentality.

Hoekstra went on her first overseas mission trip in 1993. That time she went with a church group to Belarus. Although she didn’t provide any medical care, she got hooked and in 2001 went on her first medical mission, which included working for a mobile clinic in Romania.

After making a number of key connections, Hoekstra began focusing her mission work on breast care. The first trip that included surgery was to Haiti, only three weeks after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

Most recently, she’s been going on medical mission trips with Partners for World Health, which is based in Portland. Two years ago she went to Uganda with the organization and it was also Partners for World Health that sent her to Bangladesh.

While she was in Bangladesh, Hoekstra met a breast surgeon from Singapore that invited her to visit the national breast center in that south Asia nation. She just returned from Singapore and called it “very first world,” but also said it was great to compare the advances being made there with what’s happening here in the United States.

“I would encourage anyone to take a mission trip,” Hoekstra said. “Everyone has a skill that can be used, whether it’s painting or organizing supplies” to more specialized volunteering.

“When I retire, I would love to travel the world offering medical care,” she added. “That way I could spend more time getting to know people, like three months, instead of just a week or two.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Dr. Suzanne Hoekstra, center, director of Breast Care Specialists of Maine at Mercy Hospital in Portland, with her surgical team at the National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh.