Bob Simpson has leveraged American medical resources to improve health care for children worldwide. Spoiler alert: The pope is a big fan.
When Bob Simpson returned in 1971 from his final tour in Vietnam, he enrolled at a college near East Bridgewater, Mass., where he lived with his wife, Linda, and their growing family.
On Simpson's first day of classes, his professor asked the veterans in the room to identify themselves. When Simpson and half a dozen others raised their hands, they were met with hostility. Simpson recalls, “He said, 'Get out. You're all a bunch of baby killers and I won't teach you.'”
Finding a job was tough, too, until he met noted union leader Jimmy Hoffa. “We were teamsters, and he was the only guy who would hire Vietnam vets,” says Simpson, who served as a combat medic in the Army. “We didn't come back to a very friendly country.”
Simpson's experience in Vietnam and his return home helped shape his life's passion: providing care and hope for those who are less fortunate.
“He always wanted to help children. He loves kids,” says Linda Simpson. His motivation ignited during the war, she says, when “he saw a lot of children that needed help and that weren't getting it.”
A standout example of his compassionate nature is the initiative taken by Simpson to create Project Perfect World. The organization is a team of medical professionals who travel to countries such as Ecuador, Tanzania, Nepal and Peru to perform operations for poverty-stricken children. Surgeries include cleft palates, spinal correction and orthopedics.
Simpson has been involved with PPW for decades, all while he was building up his executive career in hospital systems and medical equipment distribution. Since 2002, he has worked for several large group medical purchasing organizations, and has been president and CEO of LeeSar, a Fort Myers-based company that buys and distributes medical equipment to hospitals.
On his charitable side, the long list of people and groups that have recognized the Simpsons for their work includes the Vatican. In 2015, the couple became the first Americans to receive the honor of the Servitor Pacis award from the pope, joining royalty and dozens of notable world-changers. Translated, the award means the Path to Peace.
“I'm a Boston Irish-Catholic guy,” Simpson says. “And once you receive recognition from the pope, nothing else matters.”
Project Perfect World
Simpson's path to doing more for others began in the early 1980s, when he and Linda began to accompany Massachusetts surgical missions on trips to Ecuador in honor of their son, Bobby, who was killed by a drunk driver at age 18. The Simpsons were determined not to allow grief to consume them. Instead, they committed to give as many children as possible a second lease on life through assisting doctors.
“So Linda and I said, 'Listen, in memory of my son we'll start going with these people, and get them organized,'” Simpson says. “That's all we were going to do. If we did one case a year, one trip a year, we'd be happy, a little something to remember my son by.”
But Simpson says he soon discovered that their logistics and supplies were “a mess.” Doctors would pause during surgery with “a child opened up, asleep under anesthesia,” to locate instruments to complete the procedure. “And I thought that was ludicrous,” Simpson says
Simpson started to raise money and coordinate donations of unused surgical supplies. Missions grew to three per year, and cost anywhere from $60,000 to $200,000 per trip.
In 1994, while president-elect of the Association of Healthcare Resource and Materials Management, Simpson made a special request to the board. “He asked AHRMM to adopt this cause, and to give AHRMM a heart,” Linda says. The AHRMM organization focuses on advancing health care through the supply chain. The members agreed to sponsor the creation of a charitable division of AHRMM, and Project Perfect World was born.
Simpson's involvement grew with each passing year. He coordinates administrative tasks, such as securing insurance through Doctors Without Borders, but also works at the mission in each country.
Upon arrival in most countries, the staff must screen around 100 children to determine candidacy. “They look like they are going to a dance, and they'll wait for hours and hours just to be seen,” says Bob Simpson.
But not all medical issues are operable. Says Simpson: “In many cases, we have to say, 'No, this is too difficult, too risky, we can't do that here.'”
Simpson recalls a nun who brought a crippled boy more than 200 miles to their hospital in Ecuador. The pair rode on donkeys and in the backs of trucks while begging on the streets to fund their journey. They slept in a stairwell for days, awaiting the arrival of the American doctors, only to be told the child's condition was beyond help. “Those are the tough ones,” Simpson says.
How does he bounce back from devastating losses? “You just have to look at it one child at a time,” says Simpson, who fills his office with pictures and memories of the happier results.
After screening, the PPW team — anesthesiologists, nurses and surgeons — schedules the surgeries and works 12-14 hour days the rest of the week. In some cases, Simpson accompanies the team in the operating room.
“I don't do surgery. I am not a doctor,” he says, “but I get to assist.”
Simpson remembers a group of foreign doctors attempting to treat a boy in Tanzania who had been “torn up” by a lion. “They were going to push (him) out and say goodbye to him, because all they had were some sutures.”
The American team stepped in, using staple guns to save the child from bleeding out.
Simpson has seen every chaotic scenario imaginable in the field, including anesthetic equipment breaking down during a procedure, and surgeons forced to operate “with bare hands right in the guts of a patient.”
Witnessing the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in which doctors are forced to perform is why Simpson has remained motivated to improving the circumstances for medical professionals abroad and the patients who are fighting to live.
“We did more than just surgery,” says Simpson. “We trained and we changed the way health care was given in these cities.”
Lots of tasks
Simpson has also worked toward changing the way health care logistics is done stateside, through LeeSar. Simpson believes just as much in the work done at LeeSar as PPW, and doesn't hesitate to set the standard during employee orientation.
“This is not a job. You are saving people's lives,” Simpson tells new employees at LeeSar. “The patients, the 6,000 beds we are responsible for, are dependent on you.”
Janice Varney, a director of medical and surgical contracts at Cooperative Services of Florida, a LeeSar sister company, says Simpson is “ a visionary,
forward-thinker,” and believes his unique philanthropic qualities have “given him the profound ability to connect with all staff.”
When Simpson discovers an employee experiencing a hardship, he promotes charitable participation among the staff. That, in turn, enriches the working atmosphere at LeeSar, employees say.
In addition to being an effective leader in business, Simpson seems to have no problem executing an endless list of philanthropic achievements.
Wherever he goes, says Linda Simpson, he finds someone in need and does something about it. He contributes to a host of charities in addition to his own.
That ranges from coordinating fundraisers for the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the American Heart Association, among others, or sponsoring a hospital renovation in Ecuador to improve the living conditions for those afflicted with leprosy.
What's his secret to doing so much?
“He can multitask,” Linda Simpson says. “If he says he's going to do it, it's done within a week,” she answers. “He never stays still.”
Project perfect world
Year founded: 1995
Mission: “To improve the health of the world's children through quality medical intervention, mentoring with local medical colleagues and infrastructure development.”
Hometown: Dorchester, Mass.
Residence: Fort Myers
College: Stonehill College; advanced training in negotiation from Wharton School of Management and Harvard University. Honorary Ph.D. from Stonehill College.
Military Service: Heavy equipment operator and combat medic in U.S. Army.
Career: Has worked for LeeSar since 2002. Was director of operations for the American Red Cross.
Family: Wife Linda; daughters, Kathy, Michelle and deceased son, Bobby Jr.