Diane Harris, M.D. Recounts Rotaplast Mission to Venezuela

Dr. Harris Among Physicians, Nurses and Hospital Staff Volunteering for Humanitarian Missions

Father and Son before surgery to correct their cleft palates.

Father and Son before cleft palate repair

Father and Son After Surgery

After a successful surgery

The before photo is tragic: the faces of a father and son, both victims of genetic cleft palate birth defects, badly deformed.

The after photo brings tears to your eyes: two almost handsome people, their faces transformed by a team of plastic surgeons from the U.S. on a humanitarian mission.

Among the 25 medical specialists and volunteers participating in the 11th Rotaplast Mission in Barquisemeto, Venezuela was our own Diane Harris, M.D., a family practice specialist at the North Coast Family Healthy Center.

The Rotaplast International Mission

Rotaplast International is a non-profit, humanitarian organization founded in 1992 as a world community service project of the Rotary Club of San Francisco by Dr. Angelo Capozzi and Peter Lagarias. Recognized by Charity Navigator as a 4 star charity, Rotaplast is committed to changing lives through reconstructive surgery and has performed over 13,000 surgeries in countries around the world. The Venezuela Rotaplast team, made up of medical specialists and volunteers who are either Rotarians or spouses of Rotarians, descended on the university hospital (Hospital Central universitario Dr. Antonio Maria Pineda) on Feb. 2, 2010 and worked non-stop for 10 tens performing 110 surgeries

Dr. Harris shows off knitting project

Dr. Harris shows off knitting project during a brief respite between cases.

“The team not only performed badly needed surgeries, but also provided food and social services support to more than 200 patients and their families,” explained Dr. Dr. Harris, who was the surgical instrument sterilization specialist. While she cares for pediatric patients on the Mendocino Coast, the Rotaplast missions only allow pediatricians, anesthesiologists and surgeons to manage patients. Having completed a surgery rotation in medical school, Dr. Harris won the critical role of managing instrument sterilization to avoid infections and potential complications.

Although Rotarians, like Dr. Harris, pay their airfare for Rotaplast Missions, meals and lodging are covered with funds donated by U.S. and local Rotary Clubs. The Venezuelan government also helped support the mission.

How Patients Are Selected

According to Dr. Harris, the host country (her last mission was in Guatemala) does a lot of work to find people by placing ads on TV and radio and contacting schools, social workers and pediatricians for referrals.

In all, more than 200 people showed up for screening. Some were rejected because of disease or illnesses that might become life-threatening complications during or after surgery. Other cases were considered too complex, requiring surgery at highly specialized centers with cranio-facial experts.

“Not everyone gets healed,” said Dr. Harris. “But the missions change lives, especially for those who have been ostracized because they were born with birth defects.”

One Case Stands Out

A 20-year-old Guatemalan man born with a significant cleft palate and told by his father is was God’s punishment and could never be cured was one case Dr. Harris will never forget.

“The rules of the Guatemala mission, which was conducted at a military hospital, were that no one over 16 years would be allowed,” She recalls. “When the boy’s employer brought him in and told us what the father had said we all agreed he could be registered as age 16. After the surgery, he was handed a mirror. The look on his face was so amazing. He was so happy. It’s one I’ll never forgot.”

Long Days, Carefree Nights

The team started each day at 6:15 a.m., traveling to the hospital for breakfast and then starting surgeries and patient care by 7:30 p.m., working until all the scheduled surgeries were complete.

While dramatic before and after pictures document the team’s good works, other photos and video show enjoying after work play: among them a high-powered plastic surgeon whose main hobby is playing drummer in a rock band.

Mother and son after surgery

Big Smiles - Mother and son after his surgery

More Benefits

Besides the patients, others benefitted as well: local doctors received training in performing cleft palate plastic surgery. Young U.S. anesthesiologist residents (still in training) got experience and a taste of what it’s like to deliver first world medicine to the benefit of the poor.

“Many of the Venezuelan surgeons focus on body sculpting,” said Dr. Harris. “That’s much more lucrative than working essentially for free to help the less fortunate. Our mission surgeons provide a good role model.”

What’s Next?

For patients: local doctors will provide follow-up.

For Dr. Harris: she has signed up for three missions – one to San Salvador was cancelled – over the past three years. “I’ll definitely participate in future missions,” she said. It’s part of her Rotary commitment to put Service Above Self.

To learn more about Rotaplast, visit http://www.rotaplast.org/