Surgeon retires to spend time helping African women with breast cancer

ATLANTA — Midway down a narrow second floor hallway at the Winship Cancer Institute, away from the hum of nurses ushering cancer patients into exam rooms, Dr. William Wood talks about the great need far beyond these walls and how his boyhood faith gave him a heart big enough to care.

It began, he said, as he listened to the medical missionaries who visited the church in which he grew up in suburban Chicago. He soaked up their every word, allowing them to transport him to that time when Jesus sent his disciples out to do what he did: preach the gospel and heal the sick.

At 72, the retired Emory surgeon, a mild-mannered doctor known for his contributions to cancer therapy, is still fulfilling that mission as he crisscrosses the globe lecturing about surgical oncology and teaching young doctors how to care for breast cancer patients in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nowadays, Woods spends four to six weeks every three months in Africa, where he serves as the academic dean of the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons and assists the program directors of surgical residencies, largely on his own dime.

“This keeps me from improving my golf game, which is very sad,” he said. “But I think I have more to contribute in surgery and oncology than I do in golf.” From the time he was a scrawny 11-year-old listening to the missionaries at this father’s church, Wood expected he’d one day attend Harvard Medical School.

He wrote that much in a fifth-grade essay, but he hadn’t counted on staying at Harvard 28 years. As it was, he was fascinated by research as well as by clinical surgery.

“When I was 50 years old and moved to Emory, it was the first time I’d deviated from my 11-year-old boyhood plan,” he said.

In 1991, Wood was named head of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine.

Last September, after nearly 40 years in academic surgery, he retired from clinical practice to become more active in global health. Africa seemed a great place to start.

“The disparity in Africa is what is striking,” Wood said. “Africa has one quarter of the world’s burden of disease. It has 3 percent of the world’s doctors and nurses, and 1 percent of the dollars spent on health care, so it’s a very needy place and therefore very appealing because the need there is staggeringly greater than the need here.” Not only is there a lack of doctors and nurses, Wood said, there is little clean water or affordable oncology medicine, and it’s often difficult to follow-up with patients.

“Breast cancer, which is now the most common cancer in women in Africa, almost always presents in its most advanced stages,” he said. “We’re working to increase awareness and working with a group of radiologists at the University of Washington on how to use ultrasound to avoid unnecessary biopsies.” The challenges, too numerous to count, he said, are reminders of “how incredibly well-off we are in the United States in terms of not only health care but everything.”