Plastic surgery sometimes gets a bad rap for focusing on the superficial aspects of someone’s life. For me, it took a trip to a tiny Caribbean island thousands of miles away to help me fully understand the power physical appearance plays in everyday life.
For most Americans, the Dominican Republic is known as the premier Caribbean travel destination and a hugely popular cruise-ship stop. The island offers tourists 1,000 miles of impeccable white sand beaches, ecotourism, and stunning 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.
However, much less publicized is the fact that many DR citizens, particularly those living and working rural areas, cannot afford even the most basic surgical procedures those of us in America take for granted. Indeed, according to the World Health Org, in 2011, there were only an estimated 21.2 physicians and 3.8 nurses for every 10,000 citizens.
I landed in the Dominican Republic on a mission through Wake Forest Baptist Health and HanesBrands to help offer surgical procedures to communities in need.
Helping Those Who Need it Most
While many hospitals in the DR do offer advanced surgical procedures, most citizens can’t afford them. The government-based healthcare system offers only the basics. The consequences of this system are deadly. Difficulty accessing safe surgical care leads to more deaths every year than from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV combined. The families of working people I met saved months or even years to provide a simple surgery for their child.
As my expertise is in head, neck, and face surgery, my mission focused on performing reconstructive surgery for children with cleft lip and palates and microtia, a condition where children are born without ears.
Cleft lips are second only to Down syndrome as the most common birth defect. While cleft lips and palates are not life-threatening, these children face ridicule, shame, and fear as a result of their highly visible condition. As adults, prejudice and other factors often limit their career success.
Across the globe, children with cleft lip and palates as well as microtia face increased rates of bullying and torment. Some even rarely venture outside of their homes to avoid the stress and psychological pain. Surgery forever changes their lives, and as a father of five children myself, I wanted to give these kids a chance to look as perfect on the outside as they are on the inside.
I knew since early in high school that I wanted to be a surgeon. Getting to work with my hands and help people achieve higher self-esteem has been my calling. In medical school, learning about the anatomy of the intricate head and neck sparked my interest like nothing else I encountered academically.
When I learned about the need in the Dominican Republic, I knew I had to go.
The gratitude of the families there was almost shocking. With positive prospects for their children, parents’ entire lives turned around. They could finally bank on strong chances for their children’s financial success and happiness. I treasure my friendships with the factory workers, patients, and residents I helped train in that area, and greatly look forward to the next chance I get to return to such this beautiful island.
Here in the St. George, every time a patient looks thrilled with the result of their facelift or rhinoplasty, I think of my Dominican patients. The lives of these state-side patients won’t change as drastically as those of children with repaired cleft palates, but patients with refreshed appearances or rebalanced nose, too, take home a brighter outlook and peace of mind that colors their lives and relationships. This happiness reverberates throughout their family and community. I’m blessed to be a part of such uplifting work whether it’s in Utah or the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.