Patricia LaRocco, M.D.
Patricia LaRocco, M.D., ’71 vividly remembers the medical mission trip she made to Shenyang, China in 2006 with Alliance for Smiles, an organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to correct cleft and other palate abnormalities in underserved areas around the world.
LaRocco went as a Rotarian and served as quartermaster and sterilizer, making sure all the necessary equipment was available and ready in the operating room.
“During that mission, which was 14 days,” said LaRocco, “we had three operating rooms running five days a week, and corrective surgery was performed on 90 children. I thought it was amazing. The people there were just astounding.”
Even now, years later, LaRocco is profoundly moved by the memory of that trip. “Having a cleft palate is like a curse in these countries,” she said. “It’s amazing how grateful the parents are when they realize their child is going to have a normal life…it brings tears to my eyes.”
LaRocco has participated in several medical missions as a Rotary member and volunteer, the first in 2004 to India for a national immunization day when “everyone in the entire country works to vaccinate children against polio.” Eradicating polio is Rotary’s top philanthropic goal. According to LaRocco, “There are three strains of polio, and one of the three is completely gone, and only four countries in the world still have endemic polio.”
The 2004 trip was five days long, and LaRocco’s responsibilities included making sure that the coolers had ice in them for proper storage of the vaccine, and that all the people working to vaccinate as many children as possible had everything they required.
In 2008, LaRocco traveled with a group of Rotarians to Comayagua, Honduras on a fact-finding mission to see what could be done in that community to provide the residents with clean water. “People in the barrios don’t have fresh, clean, running water,” said LaRocco. “They don’t have indoor plumbing. I went as a physician and met with the epidemiologist at the local hospital and asked about how this problem affects the patients, and my report dealt with those issues.
“We also spoke to engineers, the guy who works with the water department; we visited the water plant and investigated ways to increase accessibility to clean water. They have the water they need, but the infrastructure is lacking.
“This is a huge project, it’s expensive and it takes time,” said LaRocco. “But it can be done. That’s how we move mountains—one shovel at a time.”
In January of 2009, LaRocco went to Hue City in Vietnam with Gift of Life International, a program that partners with Rotaries to provide surgical teams and support staff to treat children with heart defects. “It used to be that we would bring these children to the U.S. and doctors here would repair their hearts,” said LaRocco, “but now we go on missions to other countries. It’s much more efficient, cost effective, and far less traumatizing to these babies and toddlers.”
Another benefit of sending surgeons abroad instead of bringing patients to the U.S. is that the American physicians can begin to train the local doctors. “We operated on 35 children in that week, which is phenomenal,” said LaRocco. “And by the end of that time, the surgeons there were learning to perform the procedures.”
LaRocco, who retired from the practice of medicine in 2008, has traveled not only the world but a circuitous route to her career as a physician, as well. She graduated from Immaculata with a degree in home economics and worked for a few years in merchandising. She married, had children, and it was a less-than-ideal experience giving birth to her first child that provided the inspiration to enter the medical field. “I considered nursing and studied it at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte,” said LaRocco. But nursing wasn’t her true calling, and she eventually entered medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I started med school with a 4-year-old and a 2-week-old,” said LaRocco, “and my little one kept me up at night with colic, so there I was, awake and reading textbooks.” As she dryly noted, “It turned out well.”
LaRocco did a one-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology before switching to work as a full-time house physician. “I have always worked in a hospital, for a hospital, because the nice thing about it was that I wasn’t on call when I was home. I was able to have a family life in addition to working full-time.”
It was when LaRocco was living in Willingboro, NJ that she was first invited to a Rotary meeting, and she found it “important, interesting and exciting…something I could get involved with.” She joined Rotary in 1996 and has been involved ever since, currently a member of the Rotary Club of Fair Lawn, NJ.
LaRocco hopes to travel again on mission with Alliance for Smiles, this time to one of their countries in Africa, specifically Ghana. “My sister, who speaks French, wants to go as well,” said LaRocco, “and she could participate as an interpreter. It is wonderful work, wonderful causes.”
Gift of Life International is going to Ecuador sometime in the beginning of 2012, and LaRocco “would love to follow up on the water initiative there.”
In the meantime, LaRocco works part-time at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, NJ as a lab tech in the blood bank. In addition to Rotary, she is active in four community theater groups. “I usually work on costuming because sewing is always something I enjoyed. But sometimes I work on set decoration, too, such as making curtains for windows, providing table cloths, bedspreads—that sort of thing.”
If all that weren’t enough, LaRocco also teaches a basic sewing course in the Continuing Education Division at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ.
But every now and then, she said, “I actually stay home and have dinner with my husband.”