All the Difference in the World

Frank Virnelli D ’60, MED ’61. Photo by Rob Strong

Frank Virnelli D ’60, MED ’61 caught his first glimpse of healthcare challenges on the African continent via a lecture hall seat in Washington, DC. Then a plastic surgery resident at George Washington University Hospital, he was captivated by another plastic surgeon’s presentation on cleft lip and palate repairs at a British hospital in Uganda.  

Continuing his training, Virnelli crossed paths with other “flying doctors,” as they were often called, each time marveling over their procedures and results. “The idea of giving back was something that really intrigued me.” 

Now 82, he went on to complete 33 volunteer trips, repairing cleft lips and palates for hundreds of children throughout Africa and Latin America. Time and time again, he returned to his private practice in Winchester, MA, with a revelation: “The greatest rewards in medical practice are not monetary but the satisfaction from knowing that you have done as much as you possibly could for your patients.” 

In just a few hours, the procedure changes lives “almost beyond imagination,” he says, because it enables patients to talk and take nourishment effectively for the first time, positioning them to build independent futures. It also frees up the mothers and grandmothers previously devoted to their care. “There are few procedures that can have more dramatic results.”  

Just as satisfying: Training others in procedural techniques that give patients the best possible results. Over the years, Virnelli mentored more than 20 local surgeons and another 20+ students, including medical students active in the Center for Global Health Equity at Dartmouth College and the Geisel School of Medicine. And now he’s giving back as a donor, too. 

Founded in 2013 and directed by Lisa V. Adams MED ’90, associate dean for global health and a professor of medicine and of epidemiology at Geisel, the center offers interdisciplinary education, research, and clinical opportunities to assist underserved communities. Among its accomplishments: establishing the first subspecialty training in gastroenterology in Rwanda, helping to expand telehealth services in Peru, and conducting research toward a new TB vaccine in Tanzania. 

As a Center for Global Health Equity board member from 2016 to 2020, Virnelli saw Adams in action. “She wears a lot of hats,” he says. “She has also attracted some people with remarkable experience who were really dedicated to making the center a very important part of the Dartmouth experience.” 

Virnelli performed his last surgery in 2019, but that didn’t end his commitment to giving back. He and his late wife had donated to her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, through a discretionary fund managed by the dean of liberal arts. Virnelli suggested something similar for the Center for Global Health Equity that Adams could utilize to make strategic, timely investments in people and programs that would strengthen the center’s impact.  

“It’s important to me that someone who puts their heart and soul into the job they’re trying to perform has the ability to choose how to spend the money,” Virnelli says. 

He hopes that with gifts from others the Director’s Fund for the Center for Global Health Equity will eventually grow to have its own endowment. Meanwhile, Adams has found it invaluable in managing the center’s response to underserved communities. “Co-designing programs with our international partners to tackle today’s complex health challenges often requires flexibility and ingenuity that doesn’t always fit neatly into existing funding opportunities,” she says. “Dr. Virnelli understands that, and his contribution cuts through those barriers so we can engage our students, faculty, staff, and partners to maximize impact in the communities where we work.”  

Written by Ann Hinga Klein