On a Mission: Pitching in to Help Children Abroad
Last February, pediatric otolaryngologist Sancak Yuksel, MD , joined a team of otolaryngologists, nurses, audiologists and speech pathologists supported by Oklahoma-based Mayflower Medical Outreach (MMO), and traveled to the mountain towns of Jinotega and Esteli, Nicaragua, to see pediatric patients and perform surgeries. The group, which visits every year, makes the trip in conjunction with a broader effort that includes construction of facilities and physician training. Team members work with dedicated Nicaraguan otolaryngologists who provide year-round services at Victoria Motta Hospital in Jinotega and help triage consults and surgeries prior to MMO’s annual visit. The eight-day experience was Dr. Yuksel’s first mission trip.
“The mission opened my eyes to the needs of children in Nicaragua,” says Dr. Yuksel, who practices at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and is an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology-head and neck surgery at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School. “I came to the U.S. from Turkey, which has less wealth than the United States, but the lack of supplies and access to healthcare services in Nicaragua was a completely new experience for me.”
Dr. Yuksel and the MMO team, which included three surgeons and other volunteers, evaluated 93 patients from across the country in a single day, and performed 25 complex ear surgeries in the city of Esteli, operating under very limited conditions.
“Performing these surgeries would not have been possible without the efforts of other volunteers, including a nurse anesthetist, a scrub nurse, a medical student, a college graduate planning to go to medical school and a physician planning to match an otolaryngology residency,” says Dr. Yuksel. “Because there were supply shortages, we brought in our own operating microscopes, ear prostheses and suture materials. Working in Nicaragua with healthcare professionals from around the U.S. was an amazing experience. I’ll definitely do it again.”
Facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon James Owusu, MD , who practices at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital, made mission trips to Hermosillo, Mexico, Hanoi, Vietnam, and his hometown of Accra, Ghana, in the past year.
In October 2015, Dr. Owusu spent five days in Hermosillo at Cima Hospital, a well-established facility that provides services for children from across Mexico who can’t afford health care. Sponsored by Children’s Surgery International, a Minnesota-based non-profit volunteer organization, the trip was his second mission with the group and his first to Mexico.
“Most people who sign on with a medical mission expect to go to a third-world country where they’ll struggle to get the equipment and resources they need,” says Dr. Owusu, an assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology-head and neck surgery at McGovern Medical School. “This was completely the opposite. It was a well-coordinated trip with three surgeons, three anesthesiologists, three nurses and a couple of administrators to make sure everything ran smoothly. We work with local physicians on the cases and do a little teaching as well. The organization arranges for travel and accommodations for the children. If a child can’t get a procedure done in Mexico, they arrange a trip to a U.S. hospital.” The group performed 28 surgeries during the five-day mission.
In Hanoi last March, Dr. Owusu performed microtia reconstruction at the National ENT Hospital, sponsored by the Help Us Give Smiles (HUGS) Foundation, whose goal is to assist children affected by microtia, cleft lip and cleft palate, and other facial deformities. A team of 20 people including seven surgeons, five anesthesiologists, nurses and administrative staff performed 50 surgeries in a well-equipped 500-bed hospital.
“The National ENT Hospital has the resources they need but their physicians are lacking in training,” he says. “So our focus is on improving their skills with the ultimate goal of one day no longer being needed. This is my second year to make the trip, and they’re doing more complex cases this year than last, so the training is working.”
In June Dr. Owusu made a five-day trip to his hometown of Accra, accompanied by his brother Kofi Owusu Boahene, MD , a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The brothers have served side by side on mission trips in the past, but this was their first time together in their home country. They performed nasal reconstructions at Focos Hospital, an orthopedic facility, with sponsorship from the Foundation for Special Surgery, which hopes to establish an ENT hospital on the same site and provide training for local physicians.
Dr. Owusu first joined medical missions as a resident. “I’m hooked,” he says. “The camaraderie is great, and the best thing is the appreciation of the children and their families. They make you feel really valued.”