Community

Iowa City doctor gives back locally, abroad

Thomas Novak volunteers to help those in need

Dr. Thomas Novak and his dog, Ursa, anchor a mobile clinic June 3 at Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids. His mobile clinic is set up to help people without access to medical resources or who are homeless and need help staying healthy. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
Dr. Thomas Novak and his dog, Ursa, anchor a mobile clinic June 3 at Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids. His mobile clinic is set up to help people without access to medical resources or who are homeless and need help staying healthy. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
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Dr. Thomas Novak looks at his role as a doctor more as a vocation — a calling — than a job.

Novak, a family practice physician at Mercy Family Medicine in West Branch, a clinic of Mercy Iowa City, has been caring for families for 30 years. He enjoys getting to know the whole family and understands that what happens to one person impacts everyone else in the family.

And, on a bigger scale, “what happens to one person impacts the community,” he said.

Given that some people lack access to the basic needs such as proper medical care, Novak said he feels that being in a position where he can provide those basics means that he should.

“We all need to find something we can do to give back,” said Novak, 59, of Iowa City.

That belief is what drove Novak to open a monthly foot clinic in the Iowa City Catholic Worker House this year.

Each month, Novak and other volunteers offer free foot care services for those who are homeless or otherwise lack access to resources. These services include foot exams, callus and nail trimming as well as consultations on ingrown nails and foot circulation.

The idea came from Novak’s daughter, Nicole Novak, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iowa who saw foot clinics in action during her work with the Catholic Worker House in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Novak also has made his way to volunteer at the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, an Iowa City-based nonprofit that provides drug users with clean injection materials to avoid infections like hepatitis C and HIV.

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He was introduced to the group by his daughter, both of whom were in Greene Square in Cedar Rapids this past week, handing out materials, condoms and pamphlets on low income housing.

“I think it just made a lot of sense to him the way he understands health and communities,” Nicole Novak said.

Novak said the group spoke to him as a way to improve the health of the community in an innovative way.

His mission work has also taken him outside the Corridor. This past February, he joined Iowa MOST, a project through Rotary International that sends medical professionals and other volunteers to Huehuetenango, Guatemala, near the capital Guatemala City, once a year. The 2018 trip was the 13th year a team went into the region.

There, Novak acted as a pediatrician, caring for children in preparation for cleft lip and palate repair surgeries, as well as other ear, nose and throat and cataract surgeries.

“There, we just have to make sure we can keep them as safe as we can,” Novak said. “If there’s a kid that’s too sick, we won’t do the surgery. So we have to decide if this is something we can address and we can get them healthy enough to do the surgery to start the treatment, or they have to come back next year.”

Novak said while cleft lip and palate surgeries are routine in the United States, it can be life changing for Guatemalan children. Oftentimes, children with these deformities are ostracized by society, even abandoned by members of their families.

“For us, it’s just something that is routine here,” he said. “This is not a struggle (in the United States). But there, if we weren’t there, the odds of having it done would be none.”

Novak said he is committed to going back to Guatemala on the Iowa MOST team every year.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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