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A Learning Experience for a Plastic Surgery Resident

 I still haven’t recovered from my Guatemalan experience. I went along expecting to have a full week of operating on unusual pediatric cases and doing a little sightseeing. What I returned with was a newly rekindled passion for my profession. For the first time in years I saw my profession as a calling rather than a vocation. It is so easy to blurred into a routine here in the States. Morning rounds, preop assessment, full operating room schedule, diner, reading and do it all again. The routine is like a machine, so that it runs smoothly the regulators and the huge hospitals have homogenized the whole experience. I guess ultimately we do care for the sick, but why here in the States do I feel so much like a cog in a machine doing it?

All it took was my first morning in the clinic in Antigua to erase that pattern, that routine. We walked into a tiny, poorly equipped building that here in the States wouldn’t pass for a tenement, and were suddenly swallowed up by a sea of 300 patients. We later heard that some had walked all night or had taken a 25 hour bus trip with the hopes of being seen by one of our team.

The pathology was overwhelming: adults with un-repaired cleft lips and palates, horrible burn contractures, near amputations from congenital constriction bands, huge undiagnosed tumors. All of them clamoring for our attention, as if being screened was like winning the lottery. At the end of the day a volunteer stood on a makeshift stool in the middle of the crowd and called out the names of  a few lucky children. These were the few who over the next week would be treated for their diseases.  It was at this moment that I realized how adequate the lottery analogy was, of the 300 who came with hopes of  being treated the names of only 76 children were called out that afternoon. Even with my hesitant Spanish, I could sense the disappointment in the sad, quiet eyes of those who were not chosen. Even with this news they thanked us for taking the time to see them.

I now realized that the satisfaction I felt at the end of that day came from those warm, friendly and thankful people. Rather than feeling like I was “delivering a product” they made me feel as though I was giving then a gift. I remember looking over at Dr. O’Daniel and seeing him smiling at me. Back home, he said I looked like the passion I felt for these people had overwhelmed my normally cynical demeanor. He was right. The next few days were a surgical residents dream come true. Dawn to dusk just me and the senior surgeon operating on complex cases and he taking the time to explain every step.  Back home I would be lucky just getting to watch such surgeries from afar. The surgical skills I learned working closely with Dr. O’Daniel and the memories of the easy rapport he had with his nurse, Denise, will be with me forever. I can honestly say I learned to fix cleft lips and palates that week. And I had a ball doing it!

The camaraderie of the team made for fast friends. We all felt the same reverence for the people and the work at hand. No one complained about the long hours, the hard work the makeshift operating rooms or the general lack of facilities. Surgeons, nurses, office staff, and basic scientists became scheduling nurses, anesthesia techs, dish washers and maids in addition to their own respective jobs. We worked in a team until we could no more, then we loaded our equipment on our backs and we made our way back to the hotel through the streets of Antigua. At  the hotel we would gather at the bar and over a couple Gallo’s (the local beer) we would go over the days events.

In the middle of the week we took half a day to go sightseeing to the beautiful Mayan ruins. This break was bittersweet,  thought of all the children we turned away, in those hours we could have operated on a few more children.

Back at home, we have returned to our routines, but now when we pass each other in the hospital corridors the enthusiasm quickly returns as our conversations turn to that week caring for children in Guatemala. We are already plotting our return. Though I have fallen back into the routine I now feel a new strength, a strength to keep working on that calling from long ago. Besides re-igniting that calling, my experience in  Guatemala  has redefined that calling to become a pediatric plastic surgeon, what ever it takes it will be worth it. Guatemala will be waiting.


                                                                                                                                Chris Gordon MD

                                                                                                                                Plastic Surgery Resident, Volunteer

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Last Updated: February 06, 2008