Local doctors change lives through surgery overseas

Fri, Aug 22nd 2014 02:00 pm

For a group of local doctors, serving the poor is about improving people's lives by donating costly medical care, time and much-needed surgeries. In May and June, a retired priest of the diocese was among a group that traveled to Ghana and Rome with the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation, an organization of doctors and surgeons based in Williamsville, that provides reconstructive surgeries at no cost.

The foundation, which has existed since 1994, specializes in helping individuals who suffer from facial and bodily disfigurement as a result of diseases, acts of violence or accidents, and improves these people's self-esteem and quality of life. Msgr. David Gallivan, retired pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Buffalo, and Dr. Robert Smolinski, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the foundation's board of directors, said the group had helped people in Ghana with poorly-healed broken bones and extra appendages.

"The Hope for Tomorrow Foundation is the brainchild of Dr. Jeffrey Meilman, who, for other reasons, couldn't join us this year," Msgr. Gallivan said. Meilman, chair of the foundation's board of directors, is a board-certified plastic surgeon who has practiced in Amherst and Buffalo for over 20 years, and has spent over 10 years traveling the world for his work with the foundation. Meilman could not attend this trip because the government of Ghana was not able to secure a visa in time for him to go.

Msgr. Gallivan said he was able to go because his sister-in-law had been on five of the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation's previous trips, and she invited him to join. The trip, which went from the end of May to the beginning of June, went to Elmina, Ghana. Msgr. Gallivan said it was made up of doctors from Daemen College in Amherst and the State University of New York at Buffalo, with some from Vermont.

Smolinski said he has gone on the trips for the last five years, which were to Haiti twice, Vietnam once and Armenia once. This year, Smolinski, other orthopedic surgeons Dr. Craig Blum and Dr. Mark Anders, an anesthesiologist and a vascular surgeon performed about 25 orthopedic procedures. Smolinski said the patients had national health insurance, but did not have access to doctors.

"You can have insurance, but if there are no physicians that do what you need done, you have insurance without providers and you end up not getting care," Smolinski said. "I always realize with every one of these trips: as maligned as we try to say our system is here, we don't see these problems being neglected. It doesn't matter what the insurance situation is - these problems that we're seeing being neglected (in other areas of the world) are not neglected here. We somehow find a way to get them taken care of."

Although the doctors saw several hundred patients while in Ghana, they had to weed out the ones they could operate on during the trip, since Smolinski said "orthopedics is very equipment-heavy, so there's a lot of stuff we couldn't do." The team divided patients into three groups: the first group consisted of patients with problems that were not severe enough to warrant immediate attention, time and resources.

The second group consisted of people suffering from very severe problems they would need to come to the United States to have fixed, because they required more equipment, time and complicated operations than the team could provide on the brief trip. The third group were the "middle of the road" cases the surgical team had enough resources and time to treat, and they were able to receive surgeries. However, the issues with Meilman's visa meant that some of the usual plastic surgeries could not be done.

"I had witnessed some surgeries. I never thought I would be that close to a surgical table, a gurney, and I steeled myself to watch how the doctors worked," Msgr. Gallivan said.

 Other patients included a small boy with a deformed hand and an extra finger, not addressed until it became difficult to live with. The group met the archbishop of Ghana and in Rome, they attended an audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, which Msgr. Gallivan called a "moving experience." The foundation got its start as the result of a visit Western New York women made to St. John Paul II when he was pope. He subsequently blessed many recipients of surgeries the foundation has performed.

"They did wonderful things," Msgr. Gallivan said. "I got somewhat involved (in the foundation) a few years ago when my brother and his wife took in one of the burn victims from Peru, where I had worked many years ago. She had terrible scarring on her face, too much to do in one day there, so each year they bring someone (to the United States) to do more extensive surgery. She stayed with my brother and his wife for several weeks, and then went to a Peruvian friend of mine in East Aurora as she healed."

The first patient Meilman helped via the foundation was a young Chinese woman, Pan Ping, from Shanghai who was deformed after a jealous boyfriend threw sulfuric acid into her face. Meilman brought her to the United States in 1994 to give her a new face. He did the same for Meera Pardeshi, an Indian woman who was severely burned in a kitchen stove explosion, in 1998. In 1999, the foundation gave a prosthetic arm to Marcin Cywka, a 10-year-old Polish boy who had been mauled by dogs.

The Hope for Tomorrow Foundation is also responsible for recruiting doctors all over the United States and raising funds to send them around the world. Teams of doctors have gone to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and various participating physicians have included plastic surgeons, opthamologists, other surgeons, gynecologists, urologists, anesthesiologists and others.

"I hope we change their lives," Smolinski said. "There are people who had problems, from either a physical or social situation, that they were not able to function in society."

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