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For the Love of Giving

First student, athlete and physician — now hero — William Stetson ’82 brings arthroscopic surgery to Third World countries.


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Student, Athlete, Physician, Hero

USC Dornsife alumnus William Stetson '82 talks about life as a student-athlete, an orthopedic surgeon and a global philanthropist.

Video by Mira Zimet

“The most difficult Latin I translated was Cicero,” began Dr. William Stetson, an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Burbank, Calif., and a 1982 graduate of USC College. “I spent more time on my translation than I did studying organic chemistry because it was so difficult.”

Stetson would undoubtedly have been a Renaissance Scholar had he attended USC today. His academic career began in biology, yet he soon learned that he could major in classical civilization and take science courses as electives and still be accepted into medical school.

And accepted into medical school he was — USC, Vanderbilt University and The George Washington University with 10 more schools in the queue for interviews. However, with true legacy Trojan spirit, he chose USC, his father’s alma mater.

Knowing that he did not want to study the nucleus of a cell for the rest of his life, “I took classics courses because I wanted as broad a background as possible,” he explained. “I love the humanities. Classics and the sciences are intertwined and complement each other and this includes the multidisciplinary fields of medicine, law and philosophy.”

Stetson considers himself a better physician for having studied the humanities. “It provides you with a special skill set to deal with people,” he said. “Students in medical school with a liberal arts education often handle a wide range of situations much better.”

The youngest of nine children, Stetson was inspired by his father, an old-fashioned, family doctor who practiced in Torrance, Calif. “My dad was a big influence, working long hours and delivering more than 5,000 babies over a very long career,” he said. “He made many, many house calls and he loved his work. He made a big difference in the lives of his patients.”

Working hard passed on from father to son. “Naysayers told me that I either had to be an athlete or a student but I could not be both,” Stetson said.


William Stetson was a four-year letterman in volleyball and team captain. Photo courtesy William Stetson.

As an athlete Stetson was a standout. He was a four-year letterman in volleyball and team captain. In fact, he was one of the most successful volleyball players ever to attend USC. He was named the Most Outstanding Senior Student Athlete in 1982 while being hailed as the Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year by the Pac-10 Conference.

Stetson asked for and was granted a deferral from medical school to realize his dream of playing volleyball professionally. He competed internationally in Germany for one year and then later returned for a second year.

Professors and coaches greatly influenced Stetson at USC, including the chair of the classics department, the late Ed O’Neill, along with coaches Ernie Hix and Bob Yoder. “One of the accomplishments I am most proud of is the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award that I received on behalf of USC in 2007.”

Excelling in the classroom and on the court tells only a part of Stetson’s story. He is a nationally recognized top physician and surgeon. 

The walls of most physician offices are fairly sterile: medical charts, landscape paintings, modern art prints and anatomy posters. Walking into Stetson’s office, you are struck by myriad photographs that underscore his large personality. His framed USC volleyball jersey with the number five blazoned across its front is surrounded by photos of his surgical team interacting with patients.

What you also see are photos of his many excursions to Cuba.

“Once I was established in my career, I always knew I would give back to the community,” Stetson said. In 2005, he founded the nonprofit organization Operation Arthroscopy.

The program’s mission is to establish centers in Third World countries that cannot afford medical equipment and are in need of professional medical training. Stetson noted that oftentimes decent equipment remains in storage, so Operation Arthroscopy collects and uses these items to set up centers. They also train doctors on the best and latest practices in arthroscopic surgery.

“I was invited by a physician to go to Cuba in 2003 as a guest lecturer. He was retiring and asked if I would continue this program and adventure,” Stetson recalled. “I said ‘yes.’

“I fell in love with the people and believed the tool of arthroscopy and orthopedic surgery could be used to both improve the quality of life of others and to help create better relations between Cuba and the United States,” said Stetson, whose Operation Arthroscopy team has also traveled to Peru and Vietnam.

To draw greater attention to Cuba’s needs and to his nonprofit, Stetson spearheaded an annual international medical conference in the country for doctors who need proper licensure in arthroscopy.

Operation Arthroscopy began with two doctors and has grown to 25 orthopedic surgeons and four nurses from the U.S., Canada, Spain, France, Switzerland, and Austria.

“People told me that Operation Arthroscopy would never work in Cuba,” he said. “They were wrong.”

Stetson’s wife, Erica, also shares his love of humanity and values their expanding group of friends in other countries.


Dr. William Stetson (far right) and his Operation Arthroscopy team host Volunteer Saturdays every three months. Photo courtesy William Stetson. Photo courtesy William Stetson.

Giving back does not take place only on foreign soil for Stetson. “Every three months we host Volunteer Saturday at our surgery center for individuals in Southern California who can’t afford or don’t have insurance,” he said. “Nurses donate time, pharmaceutical companies donate supplies and our partners let us use the center.”

Many pre-health students have had the opportunity to complete sports medicine fellowships with Stetson, who is associate clinical professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We conduct minimally invasive surgery for the shoulder, knee and elbow — sports injuries or workplace injuries,” he said. “Students learn to diagnose, treat and repair injuries with small incisions and observe the rehabilitation process with patients.”

Stetson believes the opportunity provides students with a panoramic picture of an orthopedic surgeon’s professional life at an accelerated pace. “This is a firsthand experience that helps impact their decision as to whether they want to make a huge commitment of time and energy in the next few years.”

Stetson and his wife hope to pass on their philanthropic spirit to their children. “It’s not easy to give back at a young age,” he said. “I admire USC’s many community outreach programs that encourage students to give back and set the stage for their future good works.

“Whether I am treating a high-profile athlete, carpenter or homemaker, I find joy in helping people from all walks of life.”


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue