March 11, 2007 – York Daily Record / York Sunday News
By Jennifer Nejman
Mar 11, 2007 — The York County Medical Foundation wants to start a fund to repair children's smiles in Laos.
In November and early December, 12 doctors and nurses, most from York County, and one trip administrator, traveled on the foundation's first international trip. They went to the landlocked country slightly larger than Utah, which is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia.
Katie Peters, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Baltimore, holds a Laos child
Laos has no railroads and a rudimentary road system. Electricity is available only in a few urban areas, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Members of the group performed many different surgeries and brought $25,000 worth of laparoscopic medical equipment, which they donated to the hospital they helped in the capital city Vientiane. The foundation used an international organization and local staff at Mahosot Hospital to identify patients who needed procedures.
Dr. Brian Flowers, an ear, nose and throat doctor and facial plastic surgeon, performed cleft lip and cleft palate repairs on 15 children during a three-day period.
A cleft lip is an opening in the lip. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth. Both result from incomplete development of the lip or palate before birth, according to the Cleft Palate Foundation.
The deformities can lead to a child developing abnormal speech and having difficulty eating and smiling, Flowers said.
In the United States, the surgery is typically covered by private insurance or a child would qualify for state assistance, he said.
The surgery is elective in Laos. Group members were told there is only one doctor who can perform the surgery and he learned it from foreign doctors visiting the country.
Fixing a child's lip can be life-changing in the United States; often it is taken for granted because access to care is good, Flowers said. In Laos, if a child's lip remains split, the child is kept from school, he said.
"The family feels they have to isolate the child," Flowers said.
In York County, Flowers performs several cleft operations each year through his practice, York ENT Associates in Spring Garden Township. But in Laos, a child's family would need to bring the child to the capital city to be seen by a foreign surgical team, Flowers said.
Dr. Vasudevan Tiruchelvam, foundation president, known in York County as "Dr. Tiru," said group members performed 25 to 30 procedures, including gall- bladder removals and gynecological surgeries. The goal of the trip was to teach Laos doctors to improve the standard of health care in the country and to help the patients, he said.
Communist Laos had isolated itself from the world but is now beginning to open, he said.
Doctors are state employees. They make about $30 a month, Tiruchelvam said, adding he has heard some moonlight at other jobs.
The nursing staff at the hospital was excellent, Flowers said.
It seems Laos citizens are trained to follow Communist party lines - no one wants to offend - so the pace is slower than in America, Flowers said. That also could be due to the culture, he said.
Flowers and another doctor ended up on a 16-hour tour that started with a trip down a dirt road, included bullfrogs being cooked over a fire, eating fish in a restaurant with elderly women and a long party from which they could not excuse themselves until a government official's wife left because it would not have been proper etiquette.
The foundation hopes to send doctors to Laos again this fall, Tiruchelvam said. In the meantime, it has started a fund.
Tiruchelvam sees helping Laos as an unpaid debt for U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War, but also as the duty of a wealthier nation.
After the surgeries, Tiruchelvam said, the Laos children would be able to smile. And so would their families, he said.
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The York County Medical Foundation is the charitable arm of the York County Medical Society. The foundation regularly donates to local organizations. It has given money to Crispus Attucks and to the Healthy York Network.
The foundation plans to donate $2,000 to help open a clinic in New Orleans to serve low-income families.
Last year, the foundation sponsored its first international trip.
It has started a fund for cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries to repair Laos children's smiles.
Any monetary amount will be accepted. It costs $100 at the hospital in Laos to cover one such surgery. Doctors' fees will be donated. The foundation will use the money when its members perform the surgeries and send money to fund other doctors performing the surgeries.
To donate, make checks payable to the York County Medical Foundation and mark them "The Children's Smile Fund." Mail to the York County Medical Society, 1001 S. George St., York, Pa. 17403.