American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

2016 International Volunteer Award: James A. O’Neill, Jr.

Dr. O’Neill’s OR team, and a trainee, at the District Hospital in Naivasha

Dr. O’Neill’s OR team, and a trainee, at the District Hospital in Naivasha


James A. O’Neill, Jr., MD, FACS, a pediatric surgeon from Nashville, TN, received the International Surgical Volunteerism Award in 2016 for his work as a clinical surgeon and educator in Kenya, among other locations.

Dr. O’Neill has been involved in medical missions for more than 30 years. His early experience was in Guatemala, where he provided pediatric surgical care, and in China, where he helped to establish a children’s hospital in Shanghai.

Dr. O'Neill (right) teaching pediatric surgery to an African general surgery resident at Bethany Kids Children's Hospital at Kijabe

His greatest contribution to volunteer surgical care, however, began in 2003, when he stepped down as chair of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, to dedicate his work to humanitarian activities. With the help of the ACS Operation Giving Back Program, he began a 14-year effort that has led to long-term projects at two hospitals in Kenya.

That same year, Dr. O’Neill joined a surgical team at the Naivasha District Hospital, sponsored by the Diocese of Joliet, IL. There, he worked as the hospital’s only pediatric surgeon. In addition to his significant clinical work, Dr. O’Neill’s efforts have contributed to a range of enhanced capabilities at Naivasha District Hospital, including mechanical ventilation for infants, functioning systems of surgical infection control and quality improvement, development of a trauma service and better organization of trauma care, and improved operating room efficiency.

The primary location of his practice has been in Kijabe Mission Hospital, where, since 2006, he has spent six to eight weeks annually supporting the sole full-time pediatric surgeon at the location. The surgical workload is heavy, with almost half of the patients coming from the United Nations’ Somalian refugee camps near the Kenyan border.

Humanitarian activities have increased in Africa in recent decades, and as College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa-approved residency programs have developed, Dr. O’Neill has played a significant role in supporting the pediatric surgery residency program at Kijabe. He has helped to implement a pediatric surgery training program for African surgeons, based on the American model, to address critical surgical workforce shortages in Kenya and throughout Africa. His roles have been clinical, performing many operations himself, as well as didactic, delivering lectures three times per week during his annual residence in Kenya. He has helped to develop a curriculum that includes mock board examinations. Graduates of the pediatric surgery program now hold positions in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Cameroon.