As the horrific war rages on in Ukraine, Newman alumnus Dr. Donald Bittner, ‘77 is serving as an on-call adviser to more than 70 Ukrainian doctors as they treat the injuries of countless war victims.
Bittner is a board-certified orthopedic hand surgeon at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, and is considered one of the state’s most respected specialists in reconstructive and microvascular surgery of the hand, wrist and elbow.
In addition to more than 40 years of medical experience, Bittner has a long history of service in the U.S. Naval Reserves. When he learned of the need for surgeons in Afghanistan and other war zones, he volunteered as a frontline physician for a 12-month active duty deployment. As chief medical officer for the Navy in 2010, Bittner performed surgery 10 to 12 hours each day and treated hundreds of injured soldiers, children and Taliban combatants. Bittner retired from his military service nearly three years ago.
The combination of Bittner’s servant leadership and wealth of combat surgery experience made him an ideal presenter for the international Zoom presentation March 19.
Answering Ukraine’s call
President of the American Association of Hand Surgery John Lubahn, M.D. was tasked with organizing the Zoom presentation for Ukrainian doctors in partnership with orthopedic surgeon Eric Hofmeister, M.D.
“A lot was riding on this call,” said Troy Gideon, MBA, BSN, RN, executive director at Providence. “We needed to ensure that nothing prevented surgeons from connecting. Luckily, our technology planning paid off and there were no glitches.”
Out of all the people to advise doctors in Ukraine, Gideon said it’s Bittner’s “skill level and kindness as a caring expert” as well as his experience conducting “hundreds of trainings for U.S. military surgeons on saving lives and reattaching limbs during the stress of war” that made him the person for the job.
“I’ve known Dr. Bittner for years, and whether it is his leadership with medical staff, his commitment to our patients and the community or his unwavering dedication to serving our country, he always leaves me, as well as everyone here at Providence St. Jude Medical Center, inspired,” Gideon said.
Connected by a shared calling
Following an hour-long Q&A session on the Zoom call, Bittner gave his cell phone number to the Ukrainian health care workers and said he is willing to answer their calls 24 hours a day. He has already received multiple calls from those same doctors as they treat hundreds of injured individuals in Ukraine.
“We’re all one large community, all over the whole world,” Bittner said in an interview with ABC News. “That’s what binds us all together is we’re all physicians. We all took the same oath.”
Chief Medical Officer of Providence Sajen Mathews, M.D., sent an email to all hospital staff following the Zoom conference. The email included a link to Bittner’s two-hour discussion with Ukrainian surgeons as well as recognition for his contribution.
“Ukraine news has been blanketing our news media,” Mathews wrote. “It’s disturbing, inspiring, gut-wrenching and it is quite hard to look away from the news about Ukraine, with such compelling images and video.”
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “Dr. Don Bittner did a Zoom presentation […] and the story was carried by the national news media. We are so proud of Don, his excellence and his dedication to fellow colleagues striving to save lives in the most distressing scenario.”
Mathews ended the email with a reminder for staff to look for the good and avoid dwelling on the bad, which “can reaffirm our faith in humanity and sustain us.”
Inspired by Bittner’s selflessness
Bittner’s wife, Leticia, said it’s one thing to watch the news, but “hearing stories and testimonies firsthand deepens the level of compassion and heartache.”
“The stories I’ve heard about doctors having to operate and try to save lives without resources they’d typically have has been just heart-wrenching,” Leticia said. “This experience has certainly shed a higher level of light on just how challenging it’s been for the doctors and health care workers to care for patients.”
Leticia said she couldn’t be prouder of her husband’s efforts.
“My husband is truly selfless and has dedicated his entire life to serve others,” she said. “He jumps at opportunities to be helpful and this is just another example of how he views his oath and commitment to give all he can. He sees this as an honor and privilege and was humbled by the request.”
Newman Director of Mission Effectiveness Sister Therese Wetta, ASC, said she was “immediately proud and grateful” to hear of Bittner’s contributions to doctors treating patients in Ukraine.
“I’ve stayed in contact with Dr. Bittner since his student days here and know what a compassionate and expert professional he is,” Sister Therese said. “When Dr. Bittner began his national news piece saying that all of us are members of a global family and that we are connected to the people undergoing this tragedy, I was proud of him as a person and as a Newman alum.”
She added, “Our Newman values of being ethical, global citizens and serving others were front and center.”
A life dedicated to servant leadership
Both inside hospitals and on military grounds, Bittner has become known for medical “miracles,” such as when he helped successfully reattach the arms of a 12-year-old boy involved in a farm threshing machine accident in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
In 2013 Bittner received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from Newman for his service to the people of Afghanistan, Europe, California and Newman University. He was also awarded 2017 Physician of the Year by the Orange County Medical Association in California..
A letter from the selection committee for 2017 Physician of the Year outlined Bittner’s profound impact on patients and patients in waiting.
It read, “Word-of-mouth between friends and neighbors about Dr. Bittner’s expertise and remarkable bedside-manner translates into a waiting list of new patients — who, even when offered an earlier appointment with another doctor, refuse, preferring to wait to see the doctor they have heard so many nice things about.”
The letter referenced the gruesome wounds, challenges of an ever-changing work environment as well as the “emotional burden associated with seeing the permanent sacrifice made by U.S. soldiers” having adverse effects on the mental health of medical staff.
“Dr. Bittner’s example, as well as his kindness and graciousness, was frequently pointed to as the reason for the ultimate success of the medical unit,” the selection committee stated.
According to the letter, it is common to hear Bittner’s fellow staff members make statements like “You couldn’t find a kinder or better doctor anywhere” and “I would never want to work for anyone else.” In the waiting room, patients also praise him for being “not just a wonderful doctor, but a wonderful person.”
The letter concluded, “To be a coworker and fellow physician is to be constantly amazed by Dr. Bittner’s graciousness, knowledge, skill and unselfishness. His work ethic, leadership and level of caring for those he works with and those he treats is unsurpassed.”
A prestigious award
2017 was also the year when Bittner received the Legion of Merit Medal — an award that must be approved by the U.S. president and supported by a three-star general. Bittner, who at the time spent his weekends and vacations flying to naval posts across the country, received the honor for his innovation and success in improving the physical, mental and emotional readiness of the soldiers under his command.
Co-workers of Bittner said that neither the Legion of Merit Medal nor Bittner’s humble attitude toward the award were surprising.
In a May 2017 blog post by Providence titled “In Service to His Country,” Medical Assistant Cynthia Leva was quoted as saying Bittner’s “extraordinary service” as noted by the honor is apparent in his day-to-day interactions with patients.
“You can see his desire to help and his commitment to making his patients’ lives better,” she added.
To support those suffering in Ukraine, the Providence hospital, the St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund and Catholic Relief Services are collaborating to provide urgently needed assistance to vulnerable families. Donations from Providence caregivers will be matched up to $150K by the St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund.
Click here to donate to provide food, safe shelter and hygiene supplies to those forced to flee their homes in Ukraine.
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