Find your passion
Charles J. "Chuck" Dietzen adamantly offers the high school and college students he mentors these words of advice: "Don't settle for a job. Find your passion." Dietzen found his passion for treating the sick and those with disabilities at an early age. Family pets and neighborhood strays were the first to benefit from his "medical services."
"I was on my way to being a veterinarian," says Dietzen, recalling his childhood dreams. "In fact, when I was a kid I wanted to be St. Francis (the Roman Catholic patron saint of animals and the ecology).
"I had a veterinary clinic under the apple tree ... but when you are four or five, you are not a very successful vet. So I also had a little cemetery ... I would always pray over my patients, and have proper burials for them."
The would-be vet grew up to become "Dr. Chuck," a pediatric rehabilitation specialist making an impact in the lives of underserved children and communities around the world. He practices medicine in Indianapolis at the Easter Seals Crossroads Rehabilitation Center and St. Francis Hospital and internationally through The Timmy Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit medical organization he founded more than a decade ago.
Outlet for service
Scott Fogo, director of autism and medical rehabilitation services at Easter Seals Crossroads, has worked with Dietzen in various settings for years, including the last four at Easter Seals.
"We always talk about Easter Seals Crossroads' disability services, but our emphasis is on abilities, and Dr. Chuck lives that out every day," Fogo says.
"His passion, his mission, his commitment to not only Easter Seals Crossroads, but to people with disabilities, is without question."
Both the foundation and the Easter Seals clinic provide an outlet for Dietzen's infectious commitment to serving those who traditionally have limited access to medical care.
"The passion he has is unparalleled," says Megan Rybarczyk, a University of Notre Dame senior biology major who has made two missions trips to Ecuador as a Timmy Foundation volunteer.
Through high school and college student groups known as The Timmy Foundation chapters, Dietzen's organization enlists students such as Rybarczyk to fill vital roles in the foundation's work.
"The Timmy Foundation was begun in early 1997 with the idea that we could serve the underserved by activating the energy of our youth and taking them to areas where they would get an opportunity to discern whether they were meant to be doctors and nurses, while at the same time providing health care and education to kids who otherwise would not get it," Dietzen says.
The foundation has chapters at about nine U.S. universities and has served thousands of children in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Central, South and North America.
After learning about The Timmy Foundation from an Indianapolis chapter member, Rybarczyk in 2007 spent her first summer working with the foundation's medical outreach project in Ecuador.
"I was hooked after that," says Rybarczyk, who spent a second summer helping to provide medical care to individuals where the only fully functioning hospital serves roughly 100,000 people.
Serving with The Timmy Foundation "definitely has reinforced my decision to do medical service in the future; I either want to be here in the United States or in another country serving those who are underserved," says Rybarczyk, who has been accepted to a number of medical schools, including Vanderbilt University.
"As a mentor, Dr. Dietzen is such an inspiration," says Rybarczyk, who is seeking university approval to start a Timmy Foundation chapter at Notre Dame. "Every time I hear him talk, the more excited I get about the foundation, about what I have decided to do with my life."
Gets students involved
The Timmy Foundation is all about "getting students involved, taking their interest in medicine and making them passionate about a future career, and then also seeing how they can contribute to the community or other places in need," says Lance Brand, a science teacher at Delta High School in Muncie, Ind.
Dietzen's high school students get hands-on experience in laboratories and medical facilities.
In addition to international and local medical outreach projects, the foundation provides educational experiences using the Medical Explorer curriculum co-created by Dietzen; Brand; Rick Crosslin, writer and science educator with the Indianapolis Children's Museum; and others.
Brand was one of the first educators to pilot the program in a classroom. Rybarczyk was among his first students to use the curriculum (based on case studies), Brand says.
"We give (students) patient information, just like a doctor would have, with all the technical jargon and lingo and have them break it down ... It allows them to see that once they understand the terminology, they can go through and they can figure out what is wrong with this person," Brand says.
The curriculum requires students to consider a patient's economic situation, country of residence, the common diseases and disorders of their region, along with their family situation and environmental factors.
"They study all those aspects and then as a team come up with a diagnosis for that patient. They have to look at the patient's situation and come up with a realistic treatment plan appropriate for that patient — of course depending upon where they live, family situation, socioeconomics, travel and available resources," the high school teacher says.
The curriculum also includes opportunities to practice the proposed treatments. For example, one high school group recently performed surgery on pig hearts after studying a case in which the patient was determined to have cardiovascular problems.
Nineteen of Brand's current anatomy students recently visited Clarian North Medical Center in Carmel, Ind., where they reviewed cases, attended a lecture and performed orthopedic surgery using lifesize, resin-like models of bones.
Students "love it," says Brand.
"It is something totally unique. Most science textbooks — academic textbooks in general — used in high school are very rigid, structured, almost cookie-cutter. This is more outside the box, more real life; this is real science," says the teacher who has run the program for at least four years.
Named for brother
Dietzen named The Timmy Foundation after a younger brother who lived only four days; and it was his family life that brought out his gift for pediatric medicine. The Kokomo, Ind., native was 7 when his mom asked whether Dietzen and his siblings would be willing to share their home with a 2-year-old boy named Mikey.
"I remember looking at my Mom and saying, 'He doesn't have a mom? He doesn't have a dad?' To me that was inconceivable," Dietzen says.
Mikey would be the first of 150 foster siblings his family would nurture over the next 20 years. His mother noticed Dietzen's ability to work well with sick children, and suggested he become a pediatrician.
It took some time for Dietzen to realize mothers do know best.
"I went to Purdue, got a degree in agriculture, but ultimately realized that my real calling was to take care of children," the doctor says.
He earned a medical degree from the IU School of Medicine, part of the IUPUI campus, in 1987. After completing his internship at the University of Alabama, he practiced a few years in northeastern Kentucky before returning to Indianapolis.
Dietzen already was working with medical projects in a number of countries, when a fellow med school resident asked if he knew someone who could help him with a medical outreach program in India. Dietzen volunteered, making three trips to India in 1997, The Timmy Foundation's first year.
Meeting was a turning point
On a desk in Dietzen's home office sits a picture of the doctor and the late Mother Theresa. The picture captures the chance encounter that was a turning point for Dietzen.
"I had the great blessing of meeting Mother Theresa; it was then that I knew I could do more to help the underserved population of the world," Dietzen says. A nd thus began his life's work of healing and saving children in countries underserved by the medical profession while coaching high school and college students, hoping to flame their interests in medical missionary work.
In addition to the encounter with Mother Theresa, Dietzen's professional work overseas has led to some interesting décor in his home back in the States. A dugout canoe — his mode of transportation on a trip down the Amazon — hangs above a dining room doorway. Spears of Masai warriors, gifts from a friend, have a second life as living room curtain rods.
Both his living quarters and his garage- turned-home-office serve as a hope chest of sorts for items he hopes one day to house in a lakeside cottage. A glass-enclosed taxidermist's depiction of a bobcat stalking a pheasant, and an animal skin rug are among the several items on hold for Dietzen's future dream home.
The Timmy Foundation partners with nonprofit agencies and medical professionals in the areas it serves, providing medical equipment and medicines, as well as free clinics.
"Our vision is to create a world where all children have access to quality health care and education," Dietzen says. When asked about his most satisfying opportunity to help a child, Dr. Chuck smiled as he related a story about a simple thing that had little to nothing to do with his being a physician.
"Several years ago I went to Wrestle Fest in St. Louis, when I saw a little girl with Down syndrome dump her coke. I quickly snatched up her cup, refilled it with my coke and saw how joy just came back to her face," Dietzen recalled. "One might call it a random act of kindness. I often tell my friends that I saw an angel. It was otherworldly."
Pursuing social justice
Francisco Angulo, a foreign medical school graduate who hopes to do a residency at the School of Medicine, assisted The Timmy Foundation and Dr. Raj Sod in the construction of a burn unit at Bloom Children's Hospital in El Salvador. The unit is scheduled to open this fall.
It was The Timmy Foundation's commitment to social justice that drew him to service with the organization, says Angulo. "What The Timmy Foundation does is intervention, but also educational. When they create a partnership with an international organization, they really get together with them ... they train them, help them, really become partners; it all makes sense. That is what I was looking for, and that is what I found in The Timmy Foundation."
Other university-based Timmy chapters have similar success stories. Last year 20 Purdue students provided medical care in Ecuador and joined students from Colorado, Davidson and DePauw in raising $42,000 to build a neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in Quito. IU students provided health care in the Dominican Republic and partnered with Tufts students to raise $10,000 for an ambulance there.
Service work with The Timmy Foundation isn't just about a certain location or a certain population, says Dietzen.
"It is a philosophy of life. Students are expected to educate, advocate and to raise funds," he says.
And that takes passion.