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« January 2010 | Main | March 2010 »

Our Hosts and Patients

Dr. Joyce Chen, Interplast Webster Fellow.

DSC_0877Not only are the volunteers terrific, the local hosts I have encountered have been spectacular.      I spent a week in Portoviejo, Ecuador, with Interplast’s surgical outreach director Dr. Jorge Palacios (pictured far right).  Dr. Palacios founded Fundacion Rostros Felicios (Happy Faces Foundation) more than 30 years ago after finishing a fellowship in the Bay Area where he worked with Dr. Don Laub, Interplast’s founder.   In addition to performing hundreds of free surgeries each year as Interplast’s partner in Ecuador, Jorge also makes multiple trips a year in a refurbished school bus to the rural, underserved areas in Ecuador with his own nurses, current and previously trained plastic surgical residents, and anesthesiologists.  The humanitarian spirit that he exudes is contagious and he instills so much loyalty in his team.  

Joyce and patient Finally, the patients who I’ve had the privilege to take care of are the very reason Interplast exists.  With the political and economical disparity in these countries, the patients who we help do not have the financial access or means to receive care for their often deforming, functional problems.  A cleft lip is not simply an aesthetic problem which in itself leads to social isolation and discrimination.  A cleft lip also leads to feeding and nutrition issues; having a cleft palate compounds the problem.  All too often, we also see chronic burn contractures causing debilitating functional disability, where patients cannot move their neck or use their fingers or hands.  Our patients are very appreciative of our efforts, and many often travel by foot from afar to be treated.  To see the gratitude in their eyes is tremendous and rewarding.  I feel extremely privileged and humbled to have this opportunity with Interplast and look forward to my next six months!

First Months as a Webster Fellow

Joyce and Dr. Fu-Chan Wei Dr. Joyce Chen, Interplast Webster Fellow.

After completing my pediatric plastic and craniofacial surgery fellowship and spending a day and a half at the Interplast office for orientation, I was whisked off to Taipei, Taiwan.  Once in Taipei, I participated in a mini-fellowship, where I spent two weeks learning and assisting some of the top micro-surgeons and craniofacial surgeons in the world.  It was an amazing experience at Chang Gung Hospital with the main campus hospital having more than 100 operating rooms, and the technical prowess of their surgeons to be admired and emulated.  With my own Taiwanese heritage, I was especially proud of their progress and accomplishments over the past two decades.

During my first two months with Interplast, I trekked to four continents, and not only experienced rich cultural diversity and saw beautiful terrain in these places, but witnessed firsthand the universality of the family core of mother, father and child.   Family members hovered nearby, readily available to comfort their loved ones after surgery.  Moreover, the health care workers I interacted with were compassionate, altruistic souls, who were motivated by a common desire to help their fellow people.  I was humbled and inspired working alongside them.

I eventually joined a 14-member Interplast team to Bamako, Mali, where despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, I met some of the happiest people.  We operated for two weeks on patients predominantly with burn contractures caused by fires used for cooking and lighting.  Despite the stifling heat, my first team trip was remarkable, with extraordinary people who met one another as strangers with a common desire to help the underserved and ended the two weeks as confidantes.  As with any memorable experience, it is the people who make it such.  I’ve met some amazing volunteers who besides being avid travelers, athletes and humanitarians, enjoy the camaraderie and experience so much that they have been on 20, 30, even 60 medical trips.

My 39-hour Birthday

Dr. Joyce Chen, Interplast Webster Fellow.

Joyce Birthday Blog I returned to the United States on my birthday, Feb. 6, after having the unique opportunity of spending four weeks in Vietnam.  During my time there, I was able to operate in two hospitals: one in Quang Ngai and the other in Phan Rang, with about 30 other medical volunteers, coordinators/translators and local hospital staff.  We operated on and took care of more than 100 patients with cleft lip and/or palate deformities, as well as patients with burn contractures of the face, neck and hands. 

The timing of my return flight to the United States was especially poignant for me because it marked my longest birthday to date, as well as the half-way point of my year with Interplast as their Jerome P. Webster fellow.  Vietnam is 15 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time and with this time difference and a long flight home, I ended up having a 39-hour birthday.  This gave me ample time to reflect on my priceless experience thus far.

Big Thank You to Mobile Instrument

For more than three years Mobile Instrument has repaired and sharpened some of Interplast’s most important surgical instruments for free!  Tom Reid, Mobile Instrument’s territory manager, and Guillermo Wattley, surgical instrument specialist, have donated their time and skills to Interplast by repairing numerous needle holders and sharpening hundreds of surgical scissors, just to name a few.  We want to thankIMGP0613 Tom (pictured right) and Guillermo (pictured left) for their big hearts and great skills.  To Mobile Instrument that makes it all possible, thank you!


IMG_1495 Quang Ngai, Vietnam-Liliana Vazquez, Interplast Communications Technology Coordinator.

Linh is four years old and very studious. She came to the hospital to be evaluated with her backpack on and ready to head to school as soon as our team scheduled her surgery.  Linh was born with ptosis, a congenital birth defect which causes the eyelids to sag and could interfere with vision development.  A day before surgery patients are told not to have any food or water until after their procedures.  When Linh awoke after her surgery she was very hungry, so our coordinator/translator Theo (pictured with Linh) gave her some bread from the team’s break room.  Linh loved the bread.  When she returned two days later to have her eye checked and bandaged removed, the only way Theo could talk her into letting the surgeons examine her eye was by bribing her with more bread.  Once she was cleared by the doctors, Linh took her bread, threw on her backpack,waved goodbye and left with her father straight to school.  It was rewarding to witness that with one simple surgery Interplast played a critical role in making sure Linh’s studies are never affected because of the condition she was born with. 


Quang Ngai, Vietnam-Liliana Vazquez, Interplast Communications Technology Coordinator.

Quan’s family happened to bring their adorable 1-year-old son to the hospital a few days after all patients had already been evaluated and scheduled. Luckily for Quan, who came to be known by some of us as “the baby with the cute sweaters”, a patient had just canceled his cleft lip surgery for the following day. After ensuring Quan was healthy enough to undergo surgery, the team gladly added him to the schedule. Here are two pictures I took when we added him to the schedule and a day after his surgery, looking adorable as ever in the most fashionable sweaters we saw on any patient.

Tan Tho After Surgery

_DSC6036 Quang Ngai, Vietnam-Liliana Vazquez, Interplast Communications Technology Coordinator.

Tan Tho’s surgery was one of the longest procedures the team performed during our trip.  His nearly six-hour surgery consisted of placing a skin graft taken from his leg onto his neck to release his neck contracture.  When one’s body is burned the skin contracts in an effort to close the wound.  When not treated correctly, these wounds become contractures which can lead to deformities. In Tan Tho’s case, his neck contracture kept his head tilted to the side and his mouth partially open.  After his surgery and with medical clearance, Tan Tho continue his recovery at home under the care of his parents.  A week later he returned to hospital to have his dressings changed by the team.  The improvement in Tan Tho’s posture was undeniable; he could now hold his head up straight and fully open and close his mouth.  As the surgeons removed his dressings, Tan Tho asked to be given a mirror so he could see his skin graft.  Despite the functionality a skin graft can offer a burn patient such as Tan Tho, they are difficult to look at so soon after surgery.  Tan Tho didn’t seem to mind this fact; he wanted to see and understand his surgery.  After handing him a mirror, he took one look, thanked the team and without saying another word allowed them to once again cover his graft so it could continue to heal. 

Photo by Zane Williams

More Stories from Quang Ngai

Quang Ngai, Vietnam-Liliana Vazquez, Interplast Communications Technology Coordinator.
I’ve been back from Vietnam for two weeks now and as I sort through photographs I feel increasingly privileged to have had the opportunity to witness the work Interplast does first hand.  With that in mind I wanted to share a few more patient stories that stand out in my memory as I revisit the two inspiring weeks I spent in Vietnam.

Farewell Dinner

Farewell Party Phan Rang, Vietnam-Dr. Joyce Chen, Interplast Webster Fellow.
At the farewell dinner the local government presented each of the team members with certificates of appreciation as well as colorful locally handcrafted scarfs and bags.  In total, approximately 60 people attended the gathering with toasts, music and magic tricks filling the evening festivities.  New and old friends celebrated the successful two-week visit during which more than 70 procedures were performed by the team.

Last Days in Phan Rang

Phan Rang, Vietnam-Steve Garner, Interplast volunteer plastic surgeon.
Starting to wind down. We finished all of our big cases so as to allow adequate time for safe follow-up before the team’s departure.  Delighted to report there was not even one problem during the whole trip.  There was wonderful camaraderie among all the team members.  All our patients did great and could not be more warm and appreciative.  We are taking our host Vietnamese nurses and OR staff to dinner tomorrow night to thank them for all of their hard work and support during our time here. 

Global Health