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Volunteer medical professionals share skills to heal children

Children’s Surgery International coordinates teams to operate on children with cleft lips

While many Metro Lutheran readers are braving cold weather at this time of year, 21 people from the Twin Cities area are going to warm Liberia, Africa, for two weeks, primarily to perform cleft lip/palate surgeries for children in that war-torn nation. That group of 21 includes three surgeons and one pediatrician plus nurses and support people.

In January 2009, Peruvian parents of a young child with a cleft lip heard about Children’s Surgery  International on the radio. They traveled many hours on bus for a successful surgery. They  explained that they “couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t free. ... We feel safe now.” Photo: Lora Stege Koppel.

In January 2009, Peruvian parents of a young child with a cleft lip heard about Children’s Surgery International on the radio. They traveled many hours on bus for a successful surgery. They explained that they “couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t free. ... We feel safe now.” Photo: Lora Stege Koppel.


“We bring our own anesthesia equipment and staff because it’s more reliable than what’s available locally,” says Lora Koppel, a Minneapolis nurse actively involved in organizing the trip. Koppel, a recent cancer patient herself, will be accompanied by her daughter, Anna, a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, who is enrolled in the nursing program there.
The surgical mission goes under the name of Children’s Surgery International, formerly known as Operation Smile. The organization uses as its theme: “Changing lives one smile at a time.” To keep overhead low, the Minneapolis-based surgical mission operates out of donated office space with just one half-time employee. Surgical teams donate their time; that often runs 12 to 14 hours per day on a surgical mission such as this one to Liberia.
On a previous surgical mission to Liberia, Koppel says, some parents would walk as long as three days to bring children for possible cleft lip surgery. She added that sometimes babies with cleft lips are killed by the parents out of fear or shame since the condition is considered to be caused by evil spirits.
Koppel says there are 192 orphanages in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, which is just 30 minutes from the port city. The surgical mission is non-denominational and serves people of many faiths, including Christians and Muslims.
A mission to serve underprivileged children
Children’s Surgery International traces its origins to 1993 when a group of Minnesota doctors and non-medical volunteers came together to launch this outreach effort to repair facial deformities of underprivileged children in developing countries at no cost to patient or family. Since that time, teams have performed hundreds of cleft lip/palate surgeries in many countries around the globe.
The organization plans two or three surgical missions a year and hopes to expand to four. Its cost for full treatment of a child runs around $750 compared with thousands of dollars for the same procedure in the U.S. So, while professionals and other team members are donating their time, there are costs involved with the surgical missions. (One of the means of support is the annual Children’s Surgery International Passport to Smiles Gala to be held April 24, 2010, at the Town and Country Club in St. Paul.)
Supplies for the surgical mission are being carried by Firestone ships which carry rubber from plantations in Liberia to the U.S. The returning ship unloads at Harbel, Liberia, a port city near the Firestone plantation and Firestone Hospital where the surgeries are to be performed. Firestone also provides housing and meals for the volunteer surgical team.
Koppel noted hospitals in many areas have no food service as we know it; mothers usually come with the patient and cook food for their own child. An interesting sidelight is that children are able to return to their homes the day after surgery primarily because of a spray that protects the surgical area and prevents infection.
Supporting in-country care
A newer element to the surgical missions is inviting doctors and nurses in the host countries to observe and participate in the children’s treatment. The goal is to establish and support in-country care for those with facial deformities.
Not only are lives in Liberia touched by the surgical mission, but the stories resonate back home in the Twin Cities area. Sue Baysden, the half-time employee of Children’s Surgery International, works with social ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids. She often speaks to the confirmation classes there, tying in the surgery team example with outreach efforts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The congregation’s own Share Fest Bazaar benefits ELCA World Hunger.
Those interested in knowing more about Children’s Surgery International may call 612/746-4082 or visit the Web site: childrenssurgeryintl.org.

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