Leonard Spillert is just 79 years old. He retired several years ago from his practice as a plastic surgeon, but has not stopped practicing medicine. He can be found on Saturdays at the Mission House where he acts as a primary care physician for those who have none.
“I’ve been dealt a full house [in life],” he said, trying to explain to his 13-year-old grandson why they were both volunteering at Mission House one day.
“I then had to explain what a full house meant. I went on to teach him how to play poker during one of our sailing trips,” he said.
That’s another passion he shares with his wife, Julia, a retired nurse: sailing.
Len is the son of first generation from Eastern Europe emigrants who moved to New York. He grew up in New York City and became the first member of his family to go to college. After undergraduate school at Tulane, he went to Belgium for medical school.
His work with the homeless began while he was a resident physician at the old Duval Medical Center/University Hospital in 1971. He completed his internship in New Brunswick, Canada, where he received a check for $200 as “intern of the year.”
“We started a homeless clinic in 1972. Ruben Brigidity and I along with other interns and residents staged a brief strike when the city threatened to cut funds to the hospital. Ruben happened to be the first black student at the UF college of medicine. We became good friends,” said Spillert.
Len went on to practice emergency medicine at Memorial Hospital and Beaches Hospital for about seven years before deciding to go into plastic surgery.
“It takes seven years to become a plastic surgeon. The first five are in general surgery and then two more in plastics,” he said of an often-misunderstood specialty. “Most people think all we do is cosmetic stuff on breasts and face lifts.”
According to Len, it was 12 years before he actually began doing those cosmetic surgeries.
“Most of my plastic surgeries were burn therapy, trauma and facial reconstruction, and breast reconstruction after cancer surgery. Back then we were the pioneers of microscopic surgery,” he said.
Len found that his most satisfying work came in that post cancer reconstructive surgery along with facial trauma and burn therapy.
“The women — and their husbands — really appreciated the results,” he said.
Len pointed out that many hospitals limit surgical privileges at 65.
“By then most (surgeons) say ‘I’ve done it. I loved it. Now, give the new surgeons a chance’,” he said of that bittersweet time of retirement. “I missed too many family events having to take on-call duties at all hours. It cost me lost family time. None of my five kids went into medicine. They say I missed too much.”
Retirement did not stop him from continuing to practice medicine. While living downtown, he continued to volunteer at the clinics for the homeless, even while he did surgery. He moved to Jacksonville Beach in the 1980s, and began working at the Mission House clinic which he continues to do.
The clinic is open on Saturdays. He still performs some minor surgery, to remove basal skin cancer when it can be done safely there. Tuesday evenings it is open for specialty work sponsored in large part by the Mayo Clinic doctors and students.
He also began some new work helping in rehab efforts with a psychiatric hospital, where his patients often suffer from behavioral disorders, including head trauma resulting from drug overdoses.
Since his retirement, he often goes on mission trips to places like Africa and the Caribbean. He will be in South America on just such a trip when this story is published.
He and Julia have been to Kenya with a Seventh-day Adventist Church group called Global Mission Vision. There, he rode a special bus well out into the bush with other volunteers to meet and treat the Maasai, who are basically warriors and herders.
“They are a beautiful people. We had to carry everything we might need with us. An oral surgeon even had to bring his own little generator to power his tools,” Len said. “There was no electricity or even running water at many of the places we stopped.
“The president of Kenya had only made schooling compulsory 10 years before our trip. At first, we wondered why there were 10- to 12-year-old kids with each group of patients. Turns out they were our translators! They were the only ones who could speak English.”
When their mission work ended, he and Julia spent two nights in a most unusual hotel in the bush. It is a raised structure right on a watering hole for elephants and water buffalo.
The couple delighted in seeing the wildlife that paraded before them.
“They leave lights on at nights and the animals come in herds right below us. There is even a hierarchy,” said Len. “The elephants come first and they sort of bump the water buffalo out until they are finished.”
As Len and Julia traveled on the bus for two to three hours between villages, they saw all kinds of animals; rewarding by-products of their much appreciated medical care.
“Lions, monkeys, giraffes, water buffalo hippos. We even got to see a baby hippo be born,” said Len.
He was appalled by the shantytown outside of Nairobi, where more than 800,000 people live without electricity or running water — right next to the country’s capital.
Len and Julia also spend some of their retirement time by chartering sail boats to travel to the Caribbean with family. Both have also traveled to Europe for biking trips through Holland, Italy, and Germany. At UNF, he enjoys doing sculptures.
Len’s life is not all volunteer work, but as he said when we met at LA Fitness (where workouts help keep him ready to go — and go): “Somebody has to do it.”
At 79, he continues to relish living life to an incredible degree of success. He can even speak some Swahili.