September 19th, 2012
I thought I knew all the answers and had them worked out well before, but now, standing on the other side of an x-ray scanner waving goodbye, I wasn't so sure.
During my training (which went on seemingly forever), I was convinced at the fallacy of international medical missions. Why travel across the globe to provide care to others when there are people in need here at home? Doesn't charity begin at home?
Then... I graduated from fellowship, exiting the idealistic Ivory Tower of academic medicine and entering the hard reality that is private-practice medicine in the USA. My outlook over the past 3 years has changed dramatically. Here in the States, regardless of your political affiliation or feelings on the matter, medical care is available to everyone. Doctors are available 24/7 to handle any and every medical problem in existence with top-quality equipment and medication. It's not free (whether you feel it should be or not is not a topic I'll delve into here), but it is available. With what I do - especially the pediatric/cleft care side of things - no child with a cleft goes untreated. Actually, in the cleft community, there are probably TOO MANY doctors with fellowship training to take care of the small number of children with cleft lip and palate that are born here annually. In the developing world, however, things are different, especially for children and their families that are affected with clefts.
In most Third World countries, facial clefts are seen as a curse of the gods or an outward punishment for the sin of the parents, not a developmental "accident" as they are viewed here. In Zimbabwe, as I had seen and heard on my previous mission trip to Mexico, children with cleft lips and their parents were told they were "cursed" and were banished from their villages. Entire communities turned their backs on these families because they believed that the gods were angry with them.
One family was told their child was an "animal", and another counseled to leave their son to die.
However, after surgery, which usually lasts between 1 and 2 hours, these children's "curse" is lifted. They are accepted back into their villages and communities with open arms, and can look forward to a future where they can attend school, find jobs, and marry with the stigma of the cleft having been lifted.
In today's climate of malpractice, fighting with insurance companies, electronic medical records, Obamacare, and the non-stop political jabber by the do-nothings in Washington, losing sight of the reason to go into medicine is easy. Indeed, I had begun to. But caring for these children and their families was totally re-energizing. The smiles and hugs of the parents, the heart-felt "thank yous", and the gratitude that they showed to me was touching. It made me proud to be a plastic surgeon, honored to be able to serve them, and grateful to God for bestowing the gift of healing upon me.
The questions I asked myself at the beginning of my journey were answered along the way. Going on the trip was a self-less act - it was hard work, a long trip, and was done neither expecting or receiving anything material in return. However, in some ways, I feel that what I gained - both spiritually and emotionally - was far more that what I was able to physically provide the children I operated on. For that experience, I am truly grateful, both to them and to God, and once again remember why it is I chose to become a surgeon in the first place.
I can, and will, share stories of the trip here in the future. Pictures of some of the children and my experience in Harare are up on my Facebook page, and I encourage you to take a look.