Cleft lip, palate repair in Peru
Expanded from the print edition

May 2016 - Vol. 35, No. 04

By Tara Brennan, MD, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Humanitarian Travel Grant Awardee

perumapFor once I got excited while checking my email. I had received an AAO-HNSF humanitarian award to send me to Peru on a cleft lip and palate mission trip. The grant money would help subsidize my travel expenses for the trip. I was so excited.

Having recently moved to New York City for my AAFPRS fellowship, I didn’t have many connections. Luckily, one of my fellowship mentors, Tom Romo III, MD, hooked me up with a good friend of his, Manoj T. Abraham, MD, who is an accomplished facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon and was the director of the Healing the Children Northeast (HTCNE) mission trip to Ica, Peru, in 2015. Luckily for me, they had space on the team for one more. Dr. Romo raved about what a kind, humble, and supremely talented surgeon Dr. Abraham was, and he was right. From the moment I arrived at JFK, Dr. Abraham made me feel like a valued and welcome member of the team, even though I know his stacked team of nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, speech pathologists, and care coordinators clearly didn’t gain as much from me joining the group as I would gain from being a part of the experience.

We arrived in Lima from New York and met up with groups of HTCNE volunteers from Texas and California. To this day I have no idea how Kerry Lynn was able to coordinate the travel, financial, and medical equipment logistics involved in bringing together 36 medical volunteers from at least four different states carrying 40 bags of surgical and anesthesia equipment to the Hospital Regional de Ica, Peru, but she did.

This team was a committed and cohesive bunch, and many of them, including Debbie Fritz, Dave Fenner, Helen Buhler, Augustine Moscatello, Evan Ransom, and Joe Rousso, had been on tens of mission trips together, making it an annual tradition. Because of the passion and tenacity and true desire to effect as much change as possible in a short period of time, our team performed five days’ worth of non-stop surgery and speech therapy on kids and adults affected by cleft lip and palate and their sequelae from all over Peru, and still had time for sand surfing, karaoke, and some socializing on the malecón.

Joe Rousso, MD, an academic facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, sent me surgical videos and notes and tirelessly taught me refined techniques in cleft lip and palate surgery throughout the week. Drs. Abraham, Ransom, Moscatello, and Geldzahler also supervised and taught resident surgeons. Bertha Galvez recruited and supervised the transport of tens of patients from remote mountain villages in Peru to the clinic in Ica. And Jessica Richman, a nurse and mother of young twins from San Francisco, dragged me out of bed every morning to run in the desert heat before heading to the hospital for surgery. This team was energetic, compassionate, truly brilliant, and such a blast to work with, and I will definitely remember this week for the rest of my life.

For many reasons, ever since I decided on a career in surgery, I had always wanted to go on a mission trip—for the cultural experience, for the acquisition of new skills, for the opportunity to meet a group of talented and inspiring healthcare providers, for the service opportunity. I recently completed my fellowship and accepted a position as an assistant professor of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And my reasons for doing this were the same. Except now, I have an additional goal: to expand my role as a mentor and inspire others to dedicate more of their time to medical and surgical outreach—whether that be at home or abroad.