For the last 12 years I have spent almost every single vacation week volunteering. It all started when my good friend Craig Senders (an amazing ENT surgeon who has taught me a lot over the years) asked me to join him on a mission trip to the Philippines. I had no idea this trip would change my life. We flew to the island of Cebu with a team of about a dozen volunteers, including nurses, technicians and anesthesiologists. We saw probably 200 patients who bitterly needed plastic surgery. Children with unrepaired cleft lips and palates, sometimes as old as 14 or 15. Children and adults with terrible burns that had gone untreated and the scars prevented them from using their hands or even from walking. Patient with accidents that had deformed their nose or their face… the list went on. We operated from sunrise to sunset, each of us operating 5 or 6 patients every day. At the end of the week, the two of us had only managed to do surgery on about 70 patients… and there were so many more people who had hoped for surgery and we didn’t have enough time or manpower to treat everyone. The hardest part was choosing- how do you choose who is most deserving and who not to operate? It was clear to me then that I had to come back.
What really, really sold me on volunteer work happened on the last day of our trip. One of the patients I had operated on the first day came back for a checkup. I do not remember her name but I will always remember her face. She was a twelve-year-old girl from a very poor, remote village on another island. She had come to the initial visit with her face covered by a scarf to hide her wide open, bilateral cleft lip and palate, which had never been repaired. A shame! Twelve years old and hiding her face only because her family couldn’t afford surgery. It took me a little over two hours of surgery to fix her problem and instead of a big hole on her mouth now she had a smile! When she returned on that last day, she was no longer covering her face! Instead, she came to me with a huge smile and gave me a big hug. And then she said something to me that I will never forget: “They will let me go to school now because I’m normal now”.
I nearly died. WTF?? How is this even possible? This poor girl had not been sent to school because of her open cleft. Either her family was ashamed or someone at the school didn’t understand that children with clefts are just as smart as you and me… but she was twelve and all she wanted is to go to school. And because I had volunteered two hours of my time, I felt for the first time in my life that all the years of training had allowed me to truly change someone’s life. Not just make it a little better. Truly change it. How do you say “no” after that?? As in “no- I don’t want to volunteer, I’d rather sit by the pool and do nothing”. That was the day I knew I would be volunteering for the rest of my life.
So, as I am writing this, I just got back from another volunteer trip to Peru. I have been on over 30 trips and I have done surgeries in all corners of the world: India, Peru, Mali, Ecuador, Vietnam, Mozambique, Burma… the list goes on.
All of these efforts take a team approach. One of the best parts about volunteering is that one gets to meet many likeminded people. I have met wonderful friends and made priceless memories through volunteering. If anyone reading this page is interested in volunteering, let me share with you that giving back ends up enriching your life. For every day of hard work and every dollar spent, the experiences have made it ten times better.
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