Surgeries Repair Smiles, Lives


"The desire to be and look normal is one of the most powerful human needs, and knows no age barriers," reads the introduction on Rotaplast International's Internet Web site. "The medical professionals and lay volunteers who participate in Rotaplast missions see these needs and desires reflected in every child and family member they meet. The work is demanding, the hours are long, and the memories of making a difference last a lifetime."

Rotaplast or Rotary Plastic Surgery is a world community service project initiated by the Rotary Club of San Francisco, Calif. Its mission is to provide free reconstructive surgery for indigent children born with cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial and physical deformities.

Most of the members of the Rotaplast team are members of the Rotary Club, and among them is Dr. Val Sullivan, education consultant from the Rotary Club of Payson and the assistant district governor of District 5510 who, on a recent mission to Antofagasta, Chile, also served as the team's photojournalist.

On that journey, Sullivan kept a photo and text diary of her team's accomplishments; small, human-to-human miracles which, individually, may seem worlds apart from our lives ... but which serve as a profoundly heartening microcosm of Rotaplasty International's work around the globe.

Rotaplast's first surgical mission was conducted in January 1993, in La Serena and Antofagasta, Chile. The success of the mission, based on human need and international trust, led to an expansion of the program into five missions in 1999, with the possibility of new sites being developed in South America, Asia, and India.

Today, more than 150 Rotary Clubs including Payson's contribute funding, talent and caring to Rotaplast.

The following excerpts from Dr. Sullivan's recent Chilean mission offer touching illustrations of those latter two gifts.

Antofagasta, Chile Saturday, Feb. 3, 2001

"Today is Clinic Day! Working with Chilean doctors, we screened 112 patients. Sixty-seven received a green dot on their chart. The green dot creates smiles on the parents' faces, for it means their child will receive the surgeries that will transform all of their lives. We have two operating rooms and because there are so many patients, the team has agreed to work 12 hours a day to do as many surgeries as possible. It was heart-wrenching to see one mother crying because she was told that neither of the children she had brought to the clinic would be operated on.

" ... We have had some very interesting cases in the last two days, including four Le Forte procedures. A Le Forte procedure corrects the patient's underbite by bringing forward the maxilla. There were also seven pharyngoplasties, a procedure that allows the patients to speak more normally. A total of 24 patients were operated on in just these two days.

"One 53-year-old patient, Juana Elizalde-Tirado, had a primary cleft lip operation. She is from Iquique, a town between six and eight hours by car north of Antofagasta. She has had a disfigured face all her life. Only when she was with her immediate family would she talk without covering her mouth. Whenever she went out from the house, she always used her hand to hide her mouth. And she avoided talking because people did not understand her and it embarrassed her. Now she will be able to face the people in her community with pride.

"Another patient, 14-year-old Juan Valle, came to us this year for his sixth ear surgery. He was about 10 when he had his first surgery. He had no left ear at that time. The first two surgeries were not successful. The doctors had inserted a prosthesis in his auditory canal during his second surgery, but he still wasn't able to hear and he had no ear. So he didn't have much hope when he came to the Rotaplast clinic for the first time last year for the third surgery.

"During this surgery a piece of cartilage was removed from his ribs and carved into the shape of an ear. The piece of cartilage was then inserted around the area where an ear should be, forming his outer ear. His fourth surgery with Rotaplast put an ear lobe in place. In the fifth surgery the cartilage was lifted out away from his head and a skin graft was attached to the backside of his ear.

"This year Juan had a tragus and partial ear canal created. His ear will now look more like a normal ear."

Monday, Feb. 5 and Tuesday, Feb. 6

"The last two days we have worked at least twelve hours each day, arriving at the hospital at 7 a.m. and leaving after 7 p.m. The recovery room nurses are getting home even later. We are trying to see as many patients as possible, taking the more difficult cases at the beginning of the week to give them more time to heal before post-op clinic day this coming Saturday.

"There have been several lip revisions, cleft palates, and closures of fistulas. Many patients are receiving surgeries for the first time (called primary surgeries). Because some procedures must be completed in more than one stage, we have some patients who are returning for a secondary procedure. For example, if a child has both a cleft lip and a cleft palate, the lip will be fixed in the first surgery, and the palate in a later surgery. This gives the patient time to heal between the two procedures. We saw 11 patients on Monday and 10 patients on Tuesday with an average surgery time of about two hours each.

"Little 5-month-old Kevin Parra Alvarez was a typical patient. He had a bad cleft lip which detracted from his beautiful, brown, sparkling eyes. His operation took two and a half hours to complete. But the smile on his mother's face when she was first ushered into the recovery room was worth every minute!

" ... (Kevin's) mother had heard about Rotaplast through the local doctors in Antofagasta ... They told her about the American team that was coming to Chile. That is why she brought her baby to the clinic. She was amazed at the results. She said she had seen other babies that had been operated on, but they didn't look nearly as good." ... Much has been accomplished while here. We have worked with Chilean surgeons, dentists, pediatricians, speech pathologists, nurses, and otolaryngologists to change the lives of many children. We saw a total of 107 people during the initial clinic day. In five days we completed surgeries on 53 people, and completed a total of 85 procedures."

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