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City People

An angel among us

Sylvia Campbell, the first female surgeon in Hillsborough County, takes regular humanitarian trips to Haiti to operate on the poor.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003

NEW SUBURB BEAUTIFUL -- She believes in angels but could level a man with a single kick.

She lives in exclusive New Suburb Beautiful but regularly travels to Haiti to perform surgery on people with no money and little else.

Her days often begin at 5 a.m. She's seldom home before 8 p.m.

Sylvia Campbell is a master of balance.

"She's one of the most multidimensional people you'll ever meet," says longtime friend and fellow doctor Barbara Bachman.

Campbell -- South Tampa surgeon, mother, wife and humanitarian -- balances her life so well that it baffles even those who know her best.

"It is a mystery to me," says Bea Dreier, executive director of the Judeo-Christian Health Clinic, where Campbell is board president. "She has only 24 hours in the day, like the rest of us, but she seems to get so much more done."

Born in Orlando and raised in Winter Park, Campbell began medical school at the University of South Florida in 1974, part of the first class "to move from trailers to the real building." She was the first female surgeon in Hillsborough County.

Campbell, who is 51, opened her Matanzas Street surgical practice 14 years ago. Nationally, as an American College of Surgeons committee chair, she figures out ways trauma patients can get faster care and tries to change laws to keep people from getting hurt in the first place. She operates in Haiti twice a year, doing mastectomies and gall bladder surgeries, cauterizing wounds.

Meanwhile, at home, she is a wife and mother of three. She and her family have black belts in tae kwon do. And she's active in her church, Palma Ceia Presbyterian.

"She is a deeply spiritual person," says her pastor, John DeBevoise. "She moves through the world utilizing the personhood of others and the spirituality of others."

DeBevoise has witnessed that firsthand during the church's outreach missions to Haiti. He sees Campbell treat rural villagers with the same respect she offers fellow churchgoers.

"She's an example of what's possible when someone seeks the good of the community," he says. "That compass helps direct what she does with her life."

The humanitarian trips began, in part, through Campbell's initiative.

The surgeon and the pastor last flew to Haiti in September. Their team spent a week at a rural clinic in the village of Mombin Crochu.

They found no electricity, no paved roads, no plumbing and no telephones. The town's only "island of means," as the pastor puts it, was Covenant Hospital. The Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches operate the modest clinic, equipped with a generator, solar panels, a well and septic tank, but no supplies. Visiting teams bring their own.

"Sylvia hits the ground running, performing surgeries in about a 15-feet by 12-feet concrete block room," says DeBevoise, who is chaplain and orderly on the missions.

In a single week in September, Campbell did 36 surgeries. One was a tonsillectomy on a 4-year-old boy. At times, the children make her think of her own. She pushes the thoughts aside. "You have to separate your emotions from what you're doing," she says. "You can't think about the child; you have to think only about what to do."

She often must improvise.

After a double mastectomy, for example, she used a soldering iron to stop the woman's bleeding.

Back in Tampa, she sees patients in a refurbished brick house with hardwood floors and high ceilings. The waiting room, warmly furnished with a fireplace, wicker chairs, pillows and baskets of magazines, feels like home.

Then, too, there are the angels.

"I really believe in them," she says. "I really believe they're there."

Her life is filled with them. Spiritually, they comfort her and help her to comfort others.

In physical forms -- shaped from glass or plaster or fabric -- they stand watch from office shelves and bookcases.

Nearly all are gifts from patients.

"Each one is special because it's from someone special," she says.

Campbell herself is an angel, decrees Jeanne Hardin-Gres, a nurse anesthetist who will travel in February with her friend and a Virginia cardiologist to another Haitian clinic, the Hospital of Light.

They work long hours, often performing surgeries late into the night.

Campbell snacks on canned tuna to keep up her energy.

"She gets up early and keeps on working hard day after day," DeBevoise says.

Going to Haiti, where 70 percent of the children are malnourished, "re-centers you," Campbell says. "We have so much in this country. We really don't realize that until you go to a place like that."

She returns to her family, including husband Bob, 52, a health services researcher for the Patient Safety Center at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. The center works to prevent patient falls, pressure ulcers and Medicare errors.

He and Campbell will be married 31 years in March. When she travels, he keeps the home fires burning.

"I am the wind beneath her wings," he quips.

Twice a week, they rise for 6 a.m. lessons in tae kwon do, a Korean martial art. Some mornings they're the only ones who show up.

Chief instructor Garry Dyals calls them both "very disciplined."

Campbell is drawn to the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of tae kwon do. Its tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.

"It's not about kicking and hurting people," Campbell says. "It's about avoiding conflict. It helps me stay in shape and focus, and I need to do that in surgery."

For the Campbells, tae kwon do is a family affair. Their daughters began lessons first, then their son started at age 3. The lessons taught the children self-confidence and respect, Campbell says.

Everyone in the family has a second-degree black belt, except eldest daughter Chelsey, who has a more advanced third-degree belt.

Chelsey, 17, teaches classes at Dyals' South Tampa Martial Arts studio on Kennedy Boulevard.

"The kids love her," he says. "They think she's about as cool as they get. I trust her to do anything here. She's going to turn out a whole lot like her mother: smart and sweet."

Few stray from that description of Campbell.

"She is one of the most caring people I know," says patient Diane McCord. "She's quiet and very reassuring."

Those close to her rarely see her lose her composure. Still, they recognize the signs.

"She gets this face when she's upset," says Hardin-Gres. "She gets very quiet."

Campbell seethes when money, or lack of it, dictates what happens to people, including the medical care they get.

The second of five children, she says clues about her future came when she babysat for a neighbor who was a cardiologist.

"He was a big influence," Campbell says. "I admired him for helping people."

Her husband says he inspired her as well. When they met at the University of Miami, Campbell was studying marine biology.

"I talked her out of it," he says. "I told her those beautiful brown eyes should be looking into the eyes of patients."

She thought internal medicine would be her field, but the operating room changed her mind.

"To see the body as a surgeon is wonderful," she says. "To fix things that aren't working right is incredible.

"It's beautiful when people put their trust in you so completely when they go to sleep. That's an awesome responsibility, and you need to remember that."

-- Rebecca Richards is a freelance writer who lives in South Tampa.

Sylvia Campbell

  • FAMILY: Husband, Bob; Children, Chelsey, 17; Meaghan, 14; Ross, 12.
  • PETS: An orange cat named Punkin' and two strays.
  • FAVORITE FOOD: Chicken Caesar salad.
  • FAVORITE BELLY LAUGH: Her sister, Terry Reynolds, making shadow puppets in a tent in Haiti.
  • HOBBY: Growing flowers at home. "I love them all."
  • WHAT ANGERS HER: Decisions based solely on people's financial means.
  • WHAT SHE LOVES ABOUT FLORIDA: "The incredible abundance of God's beauty."
  • WHAT SHE DOESN'T LIKE: Development and destruction of nature.
  • MOTTO: "This life is a gift, and everyday is a gift."

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