Aaron Epstein receiving award.

Aaron Epstein, MD, third from left, holds his 2022 Citizen Honors Award for Service during a ceremony in July in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Honors Abound for Epstein, But He Just Wants to Serve

Published November 7, 2022

By Bill Bruton

When Aaron Epstein, MD, a trainee in the general surgery residency program, received a call earlier this year that he was being awarded the prestigious 2022 Citizen Honors Award for Service, he thought it was a spam call.

Took Awhile to Realize Call Was ‘Legit’

“I’m not one for awards. My ultimate goal is to do as much work on the ground in these countries as possible. The award doesn’t mean much unless it helps the organization. If it gives more visibility to our program and it helps us in some way with our work, that’s great.”
Aaron Epstein, MD
General surgery resident

“I was in Ukraine at the time and saw a number come up from the U.S. I usually don’t answer phone calls from numbers I don’t recognize, but this time I did and figured ‘I’ll see what the telemarketer has to say.’ I picked it up and it said ‘Congratulations, you’ve won this award.’” 

To Epstein, it sounded more like a Publishers Clearing House commercial, so he ignored it.

“Then they called again, and I thought OK maybe it’s something real,” Epstein says. “I remember talking to the representative over the phone and saying ‘sure, right, whatever,’ and it didn’t really register. So it took awhile to come across as something legit.”

It was legit all right. 

The national award, administered by the same organization that bestows the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor, is considered one of the highest civilian awards in the U.S. It recognizes those who distinguish themselves by their service or an act of heroism.

Founded GSMSG in 2015

Epstein founded the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group (GSMSG) in 2015 while a medical student at Georgetown University and serves as president of the organization. 

The GSMSG started out sending U.S.-trained physicians to conflict zones to treat patients in places like Iraq and Syria and provide medical care and training when local health care systems are overwhelmed.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization also operated stateside, erecting mobile clinics to aid in the fight against the coronavirus and staffing field hospitals that went up in New York City during the initial wave of the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Epstein and a team of doctors from GSMSG spent time training Ukrainian fighters and civilians in combat care during the country’s war against the invading Russian military. 

“It was pretty hectic,” Epstein says, of performing surgery in a war zone. “Russia has historically been bombing hospitals and medical centers. For the Ukrainians, it’s reassuring to see us (GSMSG, U.S., other countries) supporting them as much as possible. It goes beyond words, beyond material support — it’s putting ourselves on the line with them and saying ‘we’re here to help.’”

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society cited “Epstein’s commitment to providing medical relief to communities in conflict zones, austere environments and disaster areas around the world.”

Epstein was honored at an elaborate ceremony in Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 20.

From Modest Start, Now 1,500 Strong

Epstein started GSMSG with modest goals.

“At the time, I had recently been in the Middle East. It seemed groups would come and go and they would dump some supplies and take their photo op and leave,” says Epstein, who earned his medical degree from Georgetown in 2018. 

“I remember thinking if we could get a couple of real doctors here, that would be really great. All I anticipated from the beginning is to find a way to bring a couple of doctors into conflict areas. I was really just looking for 4-10 people to go with me to these areas,” adds Epstein, who earned a master’s degree in intelligence and security at Georgetown in 2012 and previously worked in national security. 

From that modest start, the organization has grown to a list of 1,500 volunteer surgeons and special operations veterans ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“We’re very nimble and efficient as a group. We’re more of a cloud organization than a brick-and-mortar group that has offices all over that has to maintain massive administrative budgets,” Epstein says. “It’s turned into a huge roster of people where if there’s an emergency somewhere in the world, or there’s a trip coming up somewhere, I send a message to the team and say ‘if you’re available, let’s meet at this date and time at this airport and I’ll take it from there.’ It basically went from me to almost 1,500 people.”

Making a Difference, Empowering Providers

Epstein, 37, isn’t one for hoopla, but he’s grateful for anything that helps the organization.

“I’m not one for awards. My ultimate goal is to do as much work on the ground in these countries as possible,” he says. “The award doesn’t mean much unless it helps the organization. If it gives more visibility to our program and it helps us in some way with our work, that’s great.”

His organization is making a positive difference in so many ways. 

Islamic law does not allow women to be examined by male physicians — and vice versa — which provides challenges in places like the Middle East.

“What we started doing is bringing over female military veteran medical professionals and we started training Iraqi and Kurdish women and girls on how to be medical providers. Every couple of months we would come back to Iraq and we’d see a woman whose only place was in the home and they’d come to our courses and when we came back they’d say ‘my family knows I can take care of them and watch out for their well-being,’” Epstein says. “Then they’d take another one of our courses and we’d come back the next year and now the community feels like they are real health care providers and can provide care to the community around them. We saw the place of women in these societies change from just being in the home to becoming trusted medical providers. It’s very empowering.”

He sees a difference in some of the ex-military members who have joined the group as well.

“You get these guys who are elite special forces and leave the military and they come back to the U.S. and suddenly they’re no longer a special forces elite medic; they’re doing a job where they feel they aren’t making a difference, and that can exacerbate PTSD,” Epstein says. “Then they come with our team and they’re with a whole bunch of special forces men and women again, and they get to go overseas and deploy with a team. You can almost see a 180 in these people’s mindsets. They’re a whole new person. We see a lot of that. It’s very rewarding in terms of our work.”

Gives Credit to Schwaitzberg for Support

Epstein, who is in his fourth year as a resident in the Department of Surgery, doesn’t know if he’d be able to do what he’s doing in any other surgical residency program in the country, and gives a lot of credit to Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the department.

“Dr. Schwaitzberg has been incredibly supportive. Everyone I talk to, whether it’s attendings or residents of other programs, they’re all like ‘how are you able to do this?’” Epstein says. “Dr. Schwaitzberg has been uniquely supportive of all of these global surgery efforts. That’s why I chose to come to UB. I’ve been very fortunate.”

The appreciation and respect are mutual.

“Aaron Epstein is one of those unique individuals whose supreme dedication to the cause of humanitarian care serves as an exemplar to us all,” says Schwaitzberg, himself a veteran of the Gulf War. “He is unselfish and willing to go to some of the most difficult places on earth to help those who need medical and surgical care. There is no doubt he will continue to have a remarkable career.”

Epstein has put a positive spotlight on the entire Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Dr. Epstein’s passion for delivering critical care to communities in crisis around the world, and leading others to do the same, is an inspiration to everyone at the Jacobs School and the entire UB community,” says Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School.

Epstein’s residency is taking longer than normal – he hopes to complete it after the next academic year — but that’s OK with him.

He’s doing what he loves — and making a difference.