International Surgeons Changing Lives With Facial Surgery

For the past two weeks, international surgeons affiliated with Medecins du Monde, an in­ternational humanitarian aid org­anization that recruits medical and non-medical volunteers to provide healthcare for poor people across the globe, have been re­building the faces of impoverished Cambodians suffering with facial deformities.

The victims range from young children with cleft lips and pal­ates—birth defects that are caused by the failure of tissue of the lip or mouth to close properly during fetal development—to older pa­tients with severe burns or facial tumors.

The surgeons, hailing from France, Japan and Germany, have recently volunteered their services as part of the organization’s Operation Sourire.

“For 15 years, Operation Sou­rire treats children and adults suffering from physical malformations so that they can find their place in the society [that] sometimes rejects them,” said Dr Fre­deric Lauwer, a French surgeon who participated in the recent mission to Cambodia.

“Suffering physically from their handicap, many of them can’t earn” a living, he said.

The program “has already al­lowed many Cambodians to get out of physical as well social ex­clusion.”

Roughly 70 patients were treated during the two-week mission at Kossamak Hospital and Rose Charities in Phnom Penh and in healthcare centers in Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham prov­inces, according to Lim Bun Hok, local coordinator of Medecins du Monde at Kossamak Hospital.

Lim Bun Hok said that in the past, Cambodian children born with cleft lip and palate typically went untreated for years, even into adulthood.

“Before, around 15 years ago, there were a lot of old people living with cleft palates. But many of them have been treated over the years,” he said, adding that patients are now mostly young children.

The palate is the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth that separates the oral and nasal cavities.

Suffering with a cleft can cause problems other than the obvious deformities.

Experts say a cleft lip or palate can dangerously affect an infant’s ability to feed as they are unable to suckle on their mother’s breast or on an ordinary bottle. If left untreated, clefts can also cause problems with speech, eating or breathing.

Lim Bun Hok said that surgeons can’t operate on cleft patients before they are five months of age due to an infants’ difficulty in processing anesthesia. Typically, the operation takes between two to four hours, he said.

Besides correcting a patient’s physical deformities, Frederic Lauwer said the Operation Sourire also has another purpose: to train Cambodian surgeons, nurses and anesthetists in complex medical techniques.

“This assisted training [has] existed for many years and allows the surgeons to do some operations after the mission [and] also allows us to follow through [with] the patients al­ready operated [on],” Lauwer said.

A surgical consultation and surgery is free of charge, according to Lim Bun Hok, who said that consultations are done at Kos­samak Hospital every Friday.

“Everything is free,” he said.

“Very often the families of the cleft palate patients, for instance, are very poor and live outside the towns. If they don’t have money for transport, we give them the money back that they have to borrow from their village to get to the hospital. Often we give them money to stay in a guesthouse while they are here,” he added.




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