eastwind journals 58 – THE POWER TO CHANGE LIVES wsf medical mission

eastwind journals


By Bernie Lopez


Imagine if you had the power to change the lives of people forever with your hands. How would you feel? Would you walk quietly away with joy in your heart, keeping the deed of your right hand a secret from your left? Or would you proclaim your deed to the world to achieve stardom? A band of doctors chose the former, the reward of joy in anonymity. The joy in fame is not important to them.


This team of extremely talented American and Filipino surgeons have banded together under the auspices of the World Surgical Foundation (WSF). They recently concluded in March 2013 a marathon of hundreds of surgeries in Coron and Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines in just a few days, changing the lives of people who can hardly afford to go to the hospital to be given free surgery. This author joined the mission, which opened his eyes to a whole new world of medical apostolate.


Take the case of a young Tagbanwa maiden in Coron. (Tagbanwa is the dominant ethnic group in Palawan Island.) Her mother had to borrow money just for them to travel to the hospital. The maiden had a cleft lip from birth, and her front teeth were sticking out in the opening like the fangs of a boa constrictor ready to devour an adult goat (see first photo). Without surgery, she is forever ostracized from society. Quasimodo would feel he is luckier. Romance and courtship will surely shy away. She will be denied education because she cannot face classmates who would tease her endlessly. Not only will she be alone in life, she will be ignorant, miserable and in protracted depression.


In the blink of an eye, in just a twenty-minute operation, Dr. David Leber, a veteran Cosmetic and Reconstruction Surgeon from Central Pennsylvania, has the power to change her life forever (see second photo). He stitches the gap together and straightens the teeth. Now she can speak properly, even pursue a career in singing. She can get a handsome suitor who will take care of her for life. She can be a mother and enjoy her children. She can go to school and acquire wisdom and a career. She has just been given a new life, the gift of rebirth. This is all because of an operation given for free, which Dr. Leber says is really so simple although done with extreme precision. He has done thousands of such operations and can practically do it in his sleep.


Even before the girl wakes up, her mother, seeing how pretty her daughter has instantly become with her new face, breaks into tears, embracing Dr. Leber as if he is a messiah. Indeed he is sort of a messiah. Dr. Leber feels uncomfortable being hugged by the woman, but his joy matches that of the mother. It is so amazing how needles, suture, anesthesia, and love can bring extreme joy to both the healer and the healed.


Take the case of a one-year-old baby girl in Cagayan de Oro city. She was born with an incomplete esophagus. She can never eat by mouth, and can be fed only by a stomach tube for life. Dr. Domingo T. Alvear, Chief of Pediatric Surgery at the Pinnacle Health System in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who is originally from Pangasinan, Philippines, takes a portion of her colon and connects the gap in the esophagus. This is the first time ever such an operation is done in Cagayan de Oro. Now she can breast feed, and have a normal life. (Dr. Alvear, together with his spouse Dr. Veneranda Bruno-Alvear founded the WSF.)


Again, it is a gift of a lifetime. Nothing can match the value of this gift of life. The mother is too shy to even express her gratitude. As Dr. Alvear gives her post-operation instructions, she simply bows her head, listening quietly and intently. When Dr. Alvear starts to leave, her gratitude overwhelms her shyness. She grabs his hand for a fleeting moment, and smiles without a word or a tear.


Such situations are the ingredient that fires volunteer surgeons to give their time, and even lose money from practice, because the rewards are far greater, in the realm of the spiritual rather than the material. They in fact give themselves, not just their skills or the power to heal. Indeed, such medical missions are an act of love. Dr. Alvear walks quietly away, but he shares with those around him his quiet feelings of extreme joy.


In Coron, WSF improvised four expanded operating rooms with four tables each at the government’s Coron District Hospital. It was so crowded, operating teams were bumping against each other. It was organized pandemonium, instruments and medical supplies piled up here and there, rock music keeping a surgeon dancing before he makes the first incision (he says the music keeps him cool), everyone talking, patients wheeled in and out, like a bus station at rush hour.


Beyond the chaos and harmony all in one, everyone knew with precision what he/she was supposed to do, the anesthesiologist monitoring the pulse rate, the nurse ready with the scalpel at the flick of a gloved sterilized hand. It was amazing how surgeons could be in complete concentration, making precision incisions in a market place of an operating room. Only veterans can do this. They were doing surgery from hernia to removal of cysts, some the size of a tennis ball, ligation, vasectomy to cleft lips of all kinds. You name it, they can do it, within the bounds of the medical resources at hand.


Equally busy were the front liners, screening and interviewing patients, taking blood pressure, preparing for the intake of anesthesia, giving operating gowns, etc. Outside was a sea of people from all walks of life, farmers, tricycle drivers, grandmothers, mothers breastfeeding babies, fathers with teenage daughters, and so on. They are all held back at the entrance by a pair of security guards to keep the hospital premises in order.


In Cagayan de Oro, the situation was different at the German-funded Xavier Hospital. There were only four tables in all, but they were doing specialized pediatric surgery, creating openings at the normal site for children born without an anus, or removing non-functioning intestines so that bowel movement can be normalized. Again, these are very technical precision surgeries which change lives. Children without an anus have a bag on the stomach where solid waste comes out involuntarily. They do not want to go to school because their bags smell and classmates avoid and tease them. They develop inferiority complex and are shunned by people. There were adults as old as 16 and 26, who had these bags for such a long time, unlike the luckier younger babies. Imagine the torture and stigma of the abnormality through all these years. Now, suddenly, they can live normal lives.


The WSF donated a lot hospital equipment and supplies, some of which are sophisticated instruments not yet known here that can reduce a 5-hour operation to 1 hour. But more important, the WSF missions to Coron and Cagayan de Oro City worked hand in hand with Pilipino counterparts because it believes knowledge and skills transfer is crucial in achieving sustainability and extends the presence of missions through empowered locals. The mission leaves behind a permanent legacy. There will be fewer children without an anus, fewer cleft lips among the poorest of the poor.


The power to change lives has been passed on to the locals. In that, we find the sustainability of medical missions, such as what WSF calls ‘adopt a hospital program’, no longer hit-and-run affairs, but missions that attempt to establish continuing relationships with hospitals and the people they serve. Dr. Alvear wishes to encourage other medical missions to consider adopting this WSF concept.


The Coron District Hospital is the first ever adopted hospital by a Foreign Surgical Mission group that is sanctioned by the government and by the Philippine College of Surgeons, Philippine Anesthesia Society, and Philippine OR Nurses Association. This hospital is now empowered to support its own surgical and anesthesia staff, which greatly facilitate the tasks of future visiting mission groups. More about WSF www.worldsurgicalfoundation.org. Feedback on the article eastwindreplyctr@gmail.com.


the world is one big happy family
of the haves helping the have-nots
with gifts of new life and rebirth
and the have-nots helping the haves
with gifts of joy and sanctification
in the end there are less have-nots
by giving, we receive a hundred fold
by sharing, the bounty increases
such is the synergy of people
who participate in creation
through the love they give
and the bounty they share


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