Recently we have been to far-flung destinations to volunteer for the charity Operation Smile which provides surgical care for children with cleft lip and palate in the developing World.
Duncan went to Cambodia in February and in May I went to Nicaragua for a couple of weeks. Operation Smile has quite a big profile in Nicaragua and has carried out many missions there. For the two weeks that I went the surgical team was operating in the capital Managua but I was attached to another part of the mission operating on children off the North East coast. This involved a flight out of Managua down to Puerto Cabezas which is a small town on the North East coast where we saw and assessed over eighty children.
The other thing that made this mission unusual is that we were not going to be operating in a local Nicaraguan hospital but instead were being helicoptered on to a US humanitarian ship with 1200 US Navy personnel and twelve fully equipped operating theatres. The US Navy had kindly agreed to host the missions and allow us to operate with state of the art equipment.
We assembled in a field to be picked up by the US Navy and after being kitted out with life jackets and helmets were bundled on to a helicopter and flown out three miles offshore to land on the deck of the enormous hospital ship. This was quite an experience for us and what it must have been like for Nicaraguan children who may never have taken a bus before I can only imagine.
Over the next five days we were very much assimilated into US military life mustering early in the morning before carrying out seven to eight operations a day. Meal times were closely prescribed in the canteen and we had American and international cuisine whilst being surrounded by huge TV screens usually showing baseball games or Fox sports news. Life aboard was comfortable if not luxurious and the surgeons were all bunked in dormitory fashion thirty feet below the water line.
The days passed quickly and before we knew it eighty children had been operated on and transferred back to the mainland. As always when delivering healthcare in the developing World one is confronted by the enormity of the inequality of healthcare and many of these children had never seen a doctor let alone a specialist before in their lives. It is also very humbling to see the gratitude of the parents who can barely believe that surgical care is being offered for free and has such an astounding impact on their children’s prospects and lives.
I found the charity Facing The World with Martin Kelly and this charity now thrives based at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where Richard Young now is an active participant in the surgical treatment of children brought from all over the World with facial deformity. He also travels out to offer surgical care in Vietnam.
I think all of us who practice in the West with a significant commitment to aesthetic surgery still find the contrast with providing reconstructive plastic surgery to under privileged children in developing countries very sobering and deeply rewarding. I strongly believe that the motivations and benefits of facial and body surgery are the same whether for congenital or aesthetic purposes but the circumstances in which the care is delivered is often very different.
~ Norman Waterhouse