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Monday, January 9, 2017 in Physician Leaders

​He's a sculptor, a photographer, a humanitarian and a neurosurgeon.

For a man of such talent and accomplishment, Dr. Ivar Mendez is a humble and unassuming individual, who believes that we are here to serve each other.

"I would like to make a contribution to the betterment of others," says Dr. Mendez, who is the Unified Head of the Department of Surgery for Saskatoon Health Region and the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). "There's a saying from Proust, 'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'

"I want to have the eyes to see what's happening around me," he explains, "and what's happening is that there's a lot of inequality. So for me, it's logical that the next step is to diminish that inequality with my own small, personal efforts."

Dr. Mendez and the children of Pusillani, a small remote village in the Bolivian Andes. These children benefit from the nutrition, dental care and creative art programs of the Ivar Mendez International Foundation.

Those small, personal efforts have included pioneering surgical techniques in stem cell research; bringing advanced robotic technology to northern Saskatchewan and remote villages in Bolivia; and establishing neurosurgery units in developing countries, in addition to starting the Ivar Mendez International Foundation and contributing to the beauty in the world through artistic endeavours.

Pioneering surgical techniques in stem cell research

"There are a lot of things to discover about the brain," Dr. Mendez says, his voice taking on a note of excitement. "I like the discovery, the exploration of understanding how the brain works."

Dr. Mendez's specialty is functional neurosurgery, which involves the treatment of conditions that affect the normal function of the brain and spinal cord; for example, chronic pain caused by cancer or surgery, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and psychiatric conditions. As a neurosurgeon with almost 25 years of experience, he has performed a variety of surgeries on the brain, from removing brain tumors to clipping aneurysms, and implanting electrodes and stem cells.

"Stem cells are going to influence the way we practice medicine in the future," Dr. Mendez says, explaining that stem cells are specialized cells in the body that can be used to treat or prevent disease.

"For example, if you have a heart attack, and part of the heart dies, you need a pacemaker. In the near future, you'll be able to put pacemaker stem cells in the heart. The stem cells will replace the cells that have died, so you'll be able to repair the part of the heart that was damaged.

"In the brain, it's even more exciting," he continues.

In 2002, Dr. Mendez led Canada's first team – one of five in the world – to implant dopamine cells into the human brain, using a computerized injection delivery system that he invented and patented – one of seven patents he holds in North America and Europe.

"My interest has always been to take the questions confronted at the bedside to the laboratory and bring the innovations back to the clinic," he says.

Dr. Mendez and his research team at the U of S recently signed an agreement with the University of Harvard to conduct a trial that will put stem cells in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease.

"We hope that we'll be able to repair the areas of the brain that have been damaged by Parkinson's disease," he explains. "What happens in this disease is that cells die and degenerate. By replacing the damaged cells with stem cells, we hope that we can not only improve patients with Parkinson's but also stop the degeneration and progression of the disease.

"The ability to treat Parkinson's using stem cells will truly revolutionize the way we look at the brain," he adds.

Dr. Mendez became interested in stem cells while he was a student in medical school at the University of Western Ontario.

"When I was training in neurosurgery, I became interested in the idea of repairing the brain. At that time, it was thought that once you injured the brain, that was it, you cannot improve the function or area that was affected by the injury or illness," he says. "I had a very strong interest in understanding how we can take a stem cell from somebody's skin or blood and implant it back into the brain to repair it. So, I did a PhD in the field of brain repair using stem cells."

After graduating, Dr. Mendez worked for nearly two decades in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was Chief of Neurosurgery and founded the most comprehensive neuroscience research institute in Atlantic Canada. When he moved to Saskatoon in 2013, he brought with him a cell restoration laboratory, now located at the College of Medicine at the U of S.

"I came to Saskatoon because I wanted to be in a place that has excellent physicians and surgeons, excellent hospital and university leaders, and a very strong academic community," he says.

He also wanted to scale up the robotics program he had been working with since 2002 when he performed the first long distance neurosurgery in the world. At a distance from his hospital in Halifax, he provided specialized expertise in real time to neurosurgeons operating on a brain tumor in St. John's, New Brunswick through the use of a robot, also known as telementoring surgery.

Bringing advanced robotic technology to Saskatchewan

"I have a lot of interest in the use of remote-presence robots, and I felt that Saskatchewan was the perfect location to scale up the work I had been doing in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador," he says, explaining that his team was the first in Canada to use remote-presence robots to take care of patients at a distance in Nain, the northernmost community in Labrador.

Since arriving in Saskatoon three years ago, Dr. Mendez has established the first remote-presence robotics program in northern Saskatchewan. The remote-presence robots – also known as "doctor in a box" – allow physicians in Saskatoon to deliver medical care to people in remote northern communities through a telepresence robot (a screen on wheels). The robots are equipped with driving capabilities, so the physician can move the robot from room to room. They also have stethoscopes and zoom capabilities, allowing physicians in Saskatoon to assess and treat patients in remote communities within or near where they live, instead of having them travel to Saskatoon.

In collaboration with Dr. Tanya Holt, Head of Pediatric Intensive Care, and Dr. Veronica McKinney, Director of Northern Medical Services, Dr. Mendez has conducted studies in communities in northern Saskatchewan, such as Pelican Narrows, demonstrating that acutely ill children in remote communities can benefit from robotic technology.

"The study showed us that not only can we take care of acutely ill children in a timely fashion but we can do it in a very cost-efficient manner," he says, explaining that about 65 per cent of children who would otherwise have had to be transported to Saskatoon for treatment were safely cared for in their own communities during the study.

"It's influenced the way we're looking at healthcare delivery and timely management of patients in life and death situations," he adds.

"I know I made the right decision," he says of his move to Saskatchewan, "because of what we've done in the last three years. We've built the most advanced remote-presence robotics program in Canada, and people come from all over the country and world to see what we're doing. We're not only leaders but pioneers in the implementation of this technology."

Taking medicine beyond Canadian borders

"We've done some work with doctor in a box in Bolivia as well," says Dr. Mendez, who was born and raised in the South American country.

"Prenatal care is very important in Bolivia because of the maternal and infant mortality rate," he says, explaining that too many women die in this country because they don't have access to a prenatal ultrasound that can detect potential complications in pregnancy.

In 2012, Dr. Mendez started working with obstetricians in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to do ultrasounds in remote communities using doctor in a box. Nurses from the hospital take doctor in a box and an ultrasound machine to rural villages, where they hook up the machine to the box, and a physician in La Paz does an exam in real time with the patient.

"I feel so strongly that this technology is going to allow us to narrow the gap of inequality in healthcare delivery not only in Canada but also in the world," says Dr. Mendez. "The critical issue is providing access to health care to everybody regardless of where they are."

Dr. Mendez has also started neurosurgical units in Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia.

The first was in Kigali, Rwanda in 2011. He helped organize the surgical unit, donated all of the equipment required for the unit, and established a teaching program for neurosurgeons and residents.

"My interest was not to go and do surgeries there," he says of Rwanda. "My interest was to help the neurosurgeons already there to put together something that was sustainable and that could help them grow."

It took about three years, but the Rwandan neurosurgeons are now self-sufficient and are running the unit on their own. Neurosurgical units in Cuba and Bolivia soon followed.

Integrating medicine and humanitarian work

"Medicine is a profession of service to others," says Dr. Mendez. "I've come to the realization that I won't change the world, but I can work with the tools I have to make a difference and narrow the gap of inequality.

"I feel that each one of us has a personal responsibility to contribute to people who have the least and need the most," he continues. "That's why I'm involved in humanitarian activities."

In 2010, Dr. Mendez founded the Ivar Mendez International Foundation, which aims to tap into, and realize, the limitless potential of kids in the Bolivian Andes through four programs, including breakfast, dental care, art and education.

"The purpose of the Foundation is to create opportunities for children to develop their full potential, so they can become agents of change in their own country and communities," he says. "That's why art and creativity are part of our program. Not only do we want children to have nutrition so they can develop their brain, we also want them to have creativity, because they're going to be the leaders of the future. Just this past year, one of the students who we supported for art won the most prestigious art prize in Bolivia."

In 2010, Dr. Mendez was awarded a Canadian Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year Award and was named one of 10 most Influential Hispanic Canadians for his clinical research and humanitarian contributions.

"I've been fortunate to be able to bring my scientific, medical and technological expertise to serve people," he says.

He also speaks to people through his artistic pursuits: sculpture, photography and writing. He began carving bronze sculptures as a teenager in Bolivia.

"I supported myself in medical school by doing these sculptures," he says. "I sold them to many people, some were my professors, and I had exhibitions."

"As I became busier, it was harder for me to do sculpture because it takes a long time and a lot of effort, so I started doing photography, which is part of my interest in expressing the observations I have throughout the world, especially in Bolivia."

Dr. Mendez has published three books of photography in addition to a travel journal with 14 stories of his travels along the roads of Bolivia, among other published works.

"Art, science, technology, medicine, the beauty of people – this is what we have in the world," says Dr. Mendez.

Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2017 |
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