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Local doctors

BY NORA HEATON | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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It’s the smiles they remember.

The Miles of Smiles Team, made up of Iowa City doctors and non-medical volunteers, will take its expertise to Xela, Guatemala, today to spend 10 days correcting cases of cleft lip and palate.

The team members will be able to help 60 to 80 patients and for Peter Wallace, a retired pediatrician, that’s many new smiles to remember.

“That’s what to look for,” he said, remembering one woman’s reaction when her son returned from surgery. “She literally danced around the whole unit. She was ecstatic. And you can see it in that smile.”

The team of physicians, nurses, Rotarians, and ancillary personnel has made an annual trip to Guatemala for the past five years. They work to repair cleft lip and palate, birth defects caused by abnormal facial development and help train Guatemalan doctors and nurses to treat the affliction.

Cleft lips and palates are some of the most common birth defects, and they will occur in about 1 in every 700 births, according to the National Institutes of Health. In the United States, corrective surgery is commonly done before the child is 1.

But for the Guatemalan patients who visit the team’s clinic, treatment is a luxury they can’t afford.

“These families comes from a very, very rural area in Guatemala, and they’re subsistence living,” said John Canady, a plastic surgeon at the UI Hospitals and Clinics who has gone on similar service trips for 20 years.

It’s not necessarily a lack of local skill to perform the surgeries but a lack of money for costly supplies.

The team budgets around $50,000 for the trip, Wallace said. Their funds come from rotary clubs in the area and private donors.

When departing Guatemala, the team typically leaves some supplies and equipment. In past years, the members have left an anesthesia machine and a defibrillator with staff at the local hospital.

The team also contributes 12 hours a day of concentrated effort along with free services.

“From my expectations, this is not a vacation,” said Catherine Lane, who will join the team for the first time this year as non-medical personnel. “I know that we’re going to work. They say that these are long days. I thoroughly expect to come home tired.”

Through their hard work, the team members hope to give parents the opportunity to see their children’s real smiles. Or in the case of a married teenage girl whose lip was fixed, the opportunity for her husband to kiss his bride for the first time.

Or the 83-year-old man who Wallace remembers gazing at his new reflection in the mirror after surgery.

Still swollen with stitches, Wallace said, the man approached a nurse and said: “I really want to thank you, not just for fixing me, but for making it possible for all these children to not have to live their lives like I did.”


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