Recently, I returned from a week-long mission trip to Khartoum, Sudan. It was my first trip with IMANA Medical Relief (Islamic Medical Association of North America), and the name of our trip was SaveSmile 2012. It was an extremely busy week, and a long journey to get there, but in the end it was arguably one of the most worthwhile endeavors I have ever been a part of. Our team was able to operate on 158 patients with cleft lip and palate deformities.
Our team consisted of plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians, medical students, a physician’s assistant, and other volunteers. For some this was their first mission experience; other members have been involved with trips of this type for decades. I was frequently impressed by the enthusiasm of many of the other team members, as well as their inclusive spirit. Working with this team was certainly a pleasure.
Sudan is located in northeastern Africa immediately south of Egypt. In 2011, after two civil wars and millions of deaths, the southern portion of historic Sudan split off to form its own county called Southern Sudan. Uprisings continue in a number of regions including Darfur, located in the southwestern part of the country. The combined population for historic Sudan and Southern Sudan is estimated at 45,000,000. The two official languages are Arabic and English. There are hundreds of different ethnic groups and tribes located within the borders of the country. Sadly, like too many places in Africa, Sudan remains an impoverished nation secondary to years of civil war, famine, racial discord, and government corruption.
I have had the privilege of going on a number of mission trips in the past, but I cannot recall seeing a need quite like this. On previous trips I have met a handful of teenage patients with cleft lips, and it has always broken my heart. During our week in Sudan, I actually operated on two patients in their mid forties who had never been operated on before. It is difficult to fathom what it must have been like for patients like these two who were forced to live their entire lives with a cleft lip deformity. Apparently, there are a handful of plastic surgeons practicing in Khartoum, but the vast majority of patients are just too poor to be able to afford the surgery. Tragically, the fees to have a cleft lip repaired are only between $200 and $300.
Frequently, I am asked why cleft lip and palate deformities seem to be so much more prevalent in the developing world. Although there are differences among ethnic groups, for the most part, this particular congenital deformity does not occur any more often in poor countries than it does in developed countries (roughly 1/700 live births on average); it is just that in poor countries, patients cannot afford to have the problem fixed. Millions of patients are forced to live with a cleft lip and/or palate, while in the developed world patients are universally treated very early in childhood.
Throughout the week, I found the Sudanese people to be friendly, inviting, and generous. Our local hosts were quite gracious and were always extremely concerned with our comfort. I really enjoyed building friendships with a number of local medical professionals, as well as with other team members.
Some of the most memorable parts of the trip for me were the interactions I had with parents after surgery. Because most patients only spoke Arabic, many parents were only able to say “thank you” by placing their hand over their heart while they looked me in the eye. Even without any words, I certainly got the message of just how thankful they were. In addition, as you might imagine, the patients were just priceless. Trips like these certainly help to make all the years of preparation in becoming a plastic surgeon so incredibly worth it. The thought crossed my mind a number of times during the week that I couldn’t imagine a more worthwhile use of my training.
I did want to say thank you to those of you who made generous online donations to this effort, as well as to Pierce Street Same Day Surgery in Sioux City for their assistance with some of the supplies we needed. As you likely know, there are a number of excellent charities that focus on treating patients with cleft deformities. These include Smile Train, Operation Smile, Resurge International, and of course IMANA Medical Relief. I am certain any financial support you can provide would be greatly appreciated and put to good use. Currently, IMANA Medical Relief is making preparations to return to Khartoum in March of 2013. Donations to help support this effort can be made at www.imana.org. As I’ve done in the past, I must again strongly encourage readers of this blog to find a way to get involved.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions about this trip, or if you would like more suggestions as to how you can assist in the effort to help patients with cleft deformities. Below are some additional photos of a handful of the many patients we interacted with in Sudan.
This entry was posted on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at 4:14 am
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