Retired basketball coach ready to serve in Zambia

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In Zambia last year, retired basketball coach Joe DeGregorio did what physicians could not: He persuaded a father to allow his son to have an extra toe removed.

"I told him his son can't be walking around barefoot and can't fit in shoes," Mr. DeGregorio, 77, said.

After the surgery, he presented the father with a basketball to seal the deal.

On Sept. 14, Mr. DeGregorio and his wife, Emmy, will board a plane for their second five-day medical mission to the Zambian capital city of Lusaka as volunteers with Surgicorps International.

The organization, headquartered in Glenshaw, provides free surgical and medical care to disadvantaged individuals in developing countries. In Zambia, the work is centered in Beit CURE children's hospital, with the majority of patients residing in huts on the town's rural outskirts.

Mr. DeGregorio, now of Forest Hills, is the former head basketball coach at Upper St. Clair and North Hills high schools and Clarion University; assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh -- and an inductee of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Now he runs a basketball clinic across from Beit CURE.

Children often walk miles alone to attend the clinic because villagers do not have cars.

"There are no soccer moms," he said.

Inside the hospital, Mr. DeGregorio comforts families and entertains them with magic tricks.

"This is something we can do and give back," he said.

Mrs. DeGregorio, 75, a retired speech pathologist, assists medical personnel.

"It was on my bucket list," she said of the service work.

The couple fund their own travel expenses, which this year total about $7,000.

The 20-member Surgicorps team headed for Lusaka includes the DeGregorios' neighbor, Linda Esposto, executive director of Surgicorps.

The nonprofit organization provides opportunities for medical and nonmedical volunteers, such as the DeGregorios.

"Everyone can hold a hand, smile and comfort a family and a patient in any language or any country," Ms. Esposto, 61, said.

The team of three surgeons will be headed by lead surgeon Jack Demos of Fox Chapel, a retired board certified reconstructive and plastic surgeon -- and volunteer -- who founded Surgicorps in 1994.

"He is one of my heroes. He has been doing this work and all the traveling for the last 18 years," Mr. DeGregorio said.

So far this year, Surgicorps' teams have traveled to Guatemala, in Central America, and Bhutan, in southern Asia between China and India. The volunteers will also journey to Vietnam by year's end.

Last year, the surgeons performed 43 corrective surgeries in five days in Lusaka. Of those, about half were cleft lip and cleft palate repairs and other birth deformities; the other half were for snake bites and for burns from the open fires used for cooking.

Ms. Esposto said one of the most rewarding aspects of the Zambian mission is the people they serve, whom she called "very happy, family-oriented and gentle."

"The whole family comes to the hospital. Everyone is an equal partner in the family when it comes to a sick child," she said.

They are also appreciative of the team's efforts -- regardless of the outcome.

"If we can't medically improve the condition they still thank you for seeing the child and telling them what you found," Ms. Esposto said.

After their service, the DeGregorios will fly to Zimbabwe to embark on a safari and visit Victoria Falls.

"Somewhere along the line someone said to stay busy in retirement, and we are doing it," Mr. DeGregorio said.

To volunteer, or to donate money or supplies, visit:


Margaret Smykla, freelance writer; First Published September 6, 2012 9:15 AM


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