October 14, 2019

My Favorite Charity

The Cornerstone Foundation
John T. Sinacori, MD, EVMS Otolaryngology

 

For the past 12 years, Dr. John Sinacori has spent a week each fall caring for ENT patients in what was once an isolated, neglected region on the northern coast of Honduras. 

Not long ago, residents in the impoverished municipality of Balfate had to travel for a full day to access medical care, navigating hilly, dirt-and-gravel roads. Children who couldn’t get simple ear tubes for chronic infections lost their hearing and never developed speech. Cancers and thyroid disorders went untreated for years. 

Then came the Cornerstone Foundation, a nonprofit, hospital-based Christian outreach founded in 1992 by an American general surgeon, Dr. Jeff McKenney, and his wife, Rosanne, a surgical and obstetric nurse. The two had traveled extensively in the Central American nation. 

The 30,000-square-foot Hospital Loma de Luz (“Hill of Light”) opened first, in 2003, with staff housing on site. During the next two years, the foundation started El Camino (“The Way”) Bilingual School to educate local kids and the Sanctuary House Children’s Center to provide foster care services. Cornerstone also offers trade and agricultural training. 

In 2008, Dr. Sinacori, an ear, nose and throat specialist for Eastern Virginia Medical School, Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and Sentara Healthcare, led his first mission to Loma de Luz. He was invited by Dr. Kaalan E. Johnson, then a fourth-year EVMS resident who had journeyed there during medical school. 

“That trip refreshed my thoughts on what medicine is all about,” Dr. Sinacori recalls. “It’s not just about fixing diseases but building connections with people and entire communities. It restored my faith in humankind and what we can do for each other.” 

Dr. Sinacori now travels to Balfate each September or October, usually with two other attending physicians, Dr. Stephanie Moody and Dr. Jonathan Mark, three EVMS residents, two scrub technicians, an audiologist and an anesthesiologist. On a typical mission, they treat about 70 patients in clinic and perform roughly 20 surgeries, some of them complex procedures that take up to six or seven hours. 

Cases range from inserting ear tubes and correcting cleft palates to managing advanced thyroid and head and neck cancers. One recent patient had a basal cell tumor on his eyelid that had begun to erode his eyeball after several years without treatment. By removing the damaged eye, Drs. Sinacori and Mark prevented a curable cancer from fatally penetrating the man’s skull and brain.  

The Cornerstone Foundation shies away from so-called “Santa Claus” care, or one-way, one-time giveaways of either medical treatment or donated goods. When Dr. Sinacori brought soccer balls for the foster kids, for example, they had to complete chores to earn them.

Throughout the year, Dr. Sinacori’s team stays in touch with Honduran-based physicians and patients, often via email. They also coordinate with a second American team led by Dr. Johnson, now with Seattle Children’s Hospital, that travels to Honduras each spring.    

“I’ve learned that the most important part of mission work isn’t how many cases you can do in a single trip,” Dr. Sinacori notes. “The goal is to establish friendships and relationships in order to provide a real continuity of care.”  

As the Cornerstone Foundation continues to grow, it has transformed the area’s standard of living. The hospital now provides outpatient, inpatient and surgical services to about 20,000 patients a year and will soon expand its two operating rooms to four. 

The school, currently serving pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students, hopes to add a grade each year until it runs through high school. The orphanage, which works in conjunction with child welfare officials, is a safe haven for more than 40 kids. In total, the foundation employs about 80 local residents.  

Dr. Sinacori may establish a Norfolk-based nonprofit to help fundraise for future mission trips, with the next one scheduled for late September. “It’s always a unique experience for our medical residents,” he says, “and a deeply meaningful one for me.”

To learn more, visit crstone.org.