Tag Archives: ReSurge International

RealSelf Fellow Teaches Through Surgery in Vietnam

When Dr. Joseph Gruss set out on a recent humanitarian medical trip to Vietnam, he did so not expecting to spend much, if any, time in the operating room. The trip was designed to be a teaching trip, where he could connect with local surgeons and give lectures. The operating room turned out to be the perfect classroom.

“The problem is when you get to these countries, a lot of the local people don’t speak good English, so it’s really hard to teach all the time without translators,” Dr. Gruss said in an interview with RealSelf. “I found the best way to teach was in the operating room.”

And teach he did. A lot.

“Even though I was not supposed to do many surgeries … I eventually did five cases a day for five days,” Dr. Gruss said. “To do five major cases in a day is absolutely impossible in the U.S.”

Dr. Gruss explains a procedure in the operating room. Photo via ReSurge.

Most of the patients were children in need of facial reconstruction. The majority of the surgeries were to repair cleft lips or cleft palates. Dr. Gruss said it would take at least a month in the United States to perform as many surgeries as he did in five days. He credited the efficiency of the process in Vietnam. From the nurses and anesthesiologists who got patients set up quickly, to the lack of road blocks in the process that doctors often face in the United States.

“Myself and my resident were actually blown away by how efficient the operating rooms run there,” Dr. Gruss said.

Dr. Gruss noted that while the process is much quicker than it is in the United States, it isn’t because of a lack of safety. All of the appropriate safety measures are taken with each patient. Dr. Gruss said the level of care in Vietnam was fairly sophisticated compared to many countries. There just isn’t enough of it. He visited one of the few major hospitals. Many patients live long distances away and struggle to travel for the care they need.

Dr. Gruss made this trip with a group from ReSurge, who are working to expand and raise the level of care in countries like Vietnam. He did so with a sponsorship from RealSelf as one of the members of the initial class for the RealSelf Fellowship. RealSelf Fellows are awarded $7,500 to help fund nonprofit-sponsored humanitarian trips with the potential to further the RealSelf mission to bring confidence to people worldwide.

He is planning a return trip to Vietnam, and hoping to be able to see some of the patients he operated on.

Until then, he’s continuing to do what he initially set out to do; teach. He has maintained relationships with some of the doctors he met in Vietnam, and frequently answers their questions via email.

Learn more about the RealSelf Fellowship and how to apply here.

A Lucky Day in Dehradun: Helping Burn Victims Find New Potential

Nitish and Dr. Kush
Sarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care.
Read the first and second parts of her story.

The morning after clinic day, my team met in the hotel restaurant at 6 a.m. Over breakfast, we talked about how everyone slept, with every answer the same: “I woke up at 2 a.m.” This would become our daily routine.

As I ate, the previous day ran through my head. I worried I’d taken too many photos of some of the patients. How did they feel when I asked to see their disfigured hands, or when I zoomed in on their scarred faces? I’d seen so many people with so many deformities that I sometimes didn’t recognize them when they found me later to say they’d been approved for surgery.

Several people came up to me and asked what could be done about their injuries. I would tell them I’m not a doctor, but they didn’t seem to care. They would ask again. “Will surgery help my daughter? Will this scar go away?” I wished so badly there was something I could do to help. I thought about all the information I’m exposed to every day on RealSelf. Unlike me, most of these people have no information at all. They have no way of knowing what their options are or what it could cost or where they can be treated.

Father and Daughter at the Clinic

I couldn’t help but wonder if the doctors were also running through the previous day in their minds. Did they wish they could have done more? Did they regret that a particular patient wasn’t able to be granted surgery? Did they worry they had made a mistake? As I listened to them talk, they confirmed my concerns. They wished they’d written something else down on a chart or that asked different questions. They obviously cared deeply about doing things right.

When we arrived at the hospital, we were told the first patient hadn’t shown up. Did they change their minds? Were they just too scared? Dr. Kush knew of someone local who was in need of surgery. He contacted them to tell them that if they could make it to the hospital, he could fit them in.

Less than an hour later, a familiar face arrived: the same little boy who’d been introduced on the first day. Though Nitesh had already undergone one surgery to correct the burns on his legs, there was still some scar tissue around his groin that prevented him from going to the bathroom normally. Today was a lucky day. Because of that cancellation, he’d finally be able to get the surgery he needed to be fully healed.

Nitish and His Dad at the Cllinic
Shortly after Nitash’s surgery began, I was told I’d be making a trip up to Jangle Mangle, a permanent ReSurge clinic run by Kush’s father, Dr. Yogi Aeron. Typically, this is where the surgery camp takes place, but this year they decided to make it more accessible in the center of town.

I had heard a lot about Jangle Mangle. It’s a medical clinic set on a five-acre garden in the mountains of Dehradun, with room to feed and house people while they’re receiving medical care. Dr. Yogi led us in through a small hallway that opened up into a modest living room. Behind that room was another, just large enough to fit a bed, where he could catch a few hours of sleep during overnight stays.

Down another light-filled hallway was the an operating room with marble walls, a stark contrast to the one we’d seen at the clinic. Past the operating room was a large open air studio, where Dr. Yogi made plaster casts of his patients before surgery. Past that was a large covered porch with a row of beds and a view of the valley below. Patients stayed here as they received their care.

A Girl and Her Dad at Jungle Mangle
Each part of the property was more magical than the last. There were fish tanks that had been made into kaleidoscopes, where fish became a living part of the geometry. There were giant metal structures used to train trees, twisting them into topiaries. Dr. Yogi had even created an elaborate tree house for his guests, with the plan to one day add a staircase, washbasin, and fresh fruit you could pick from inside.

Dotting the edges of the property were small, simple huts overlooking the ravine. These huts provided homes for a few former patients who needed a job or a place to live. Perhaps these people were rejected by their families after being disfigured, or their injuries had left them unable to work. No matter the cause, they had nowhere else to go. Here, they’re given work and a place to stay, often helping out new patients in need.

Jungle Mangle
I imagined 100 years from now, people being taken on tours of the garden. The guides would tell the story of a man and his clinic, which drew people from all over the region in the hopes that they could be healed. Maybe they still would.

“No one has an appreciation of things that are unfinished,” Dr. Yogi told me. “No one has any imagination to see what something could be.” Although he’s 75, the doctor’s work is far from finished. Just as his garden is a work in progress, so are his patients. He can imagine the potential of what they can become through reconstructive surgery, even when they or their families cannot.

* * *

The next morning, the doctors reported that they’d completed six successful surgeries at the clinic. Scars on necks, arms, legs, and hands — scars that had often led people to be rejected by their communities — had all been repaired with skin grafts and flaps. More important than the physical changes were the mental and emotional transformations. Through the work of ReSurge and its doctors, these people had a new sense of who they are and what they can become.

— Sarah

 

 

 

Clinic Day in Dehradun: Afraid to Look, Afraid to Look Away

India Crowd
Sarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care.
Read the first part of her story here.

The first day at the hospital is “clinic day,” when doctors and staff evaluate hundreds of patients who’ve shown up in hopes of receiving free, potentially life-changing surgery. It’s an emotional day, filled not only with stories of tragedy, but of having to decide who can be treated and who must be turned away. More than 500 people showed up to be seen, roughly 400 more than we’d expected.

Little Boy Treated for BurnsOur van pulled up to the hospital to a waiting crowd. Hundreds of faces stared as we were escorted to a stage. Dr. Kush Aeron, one of the local doctors and a director of ReSurge’s Surgical Outreach Program in Dehradun, addressed the audience in Hindi. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I noticed everyone looking around at others in the crowd. That’s when a little boy and his father began to make their way to the front.

I later learned that the child had undergone a previous surgery performed by Dr. Kush to correct the damage a fire had caused to his legs. The burns formed webs of scar tissue behind his knees, causing his legs to be permanently bent. Before his surgery, he’d been unable to walk. Now he was just like any other child.

After these introductions, we were escorted through glass doors with the words “Operation Theater” above in red paint. Behind the doors was a large room with a series of smaller rooms opening into it: the examination room, the break room, the OR. Walking into the operating room, we were met with an overpowering smell of disinfectant. There was a large sink that was more brown than white, with three faucets dripping into it.

Operating Theater and Sink

We ripped open the boxes of medical supplies that had shipped along with us, while the head nurse scrubbed down the OR. Before we were even ready, the first patient walked through the door. She was so badly burned and disfigured that I was afraid to look her, but I was also afraid to look away. Her skin was shiny, with thick threads of scarred flesh running across her face and down her neck. Her mouth was pulled open, her bottom teeth permanently exposed, and her scarred hands forced her fingers into the appearance of claws.

SanjanaAs the day wore on, the rooms filled with people and lines snaked out the doors. The smell of bodies overwhelmed the space. Doctors and prospective patients were all tired from their travels. Some from mountain villages had traveled for a day or more to get there. Many brought their families with them, some with deformities of their own. During the examinations, they were asked about their medical history, mostly to determine if they were healthy enough to be placed under general anesthesia. It quickly became clear that the majority of these people had never been to a hospital before. Many were born at home and had never had any medical care at all.

As the doctors continued with the screenings, members of the Indian media interviewed the hospital staff and people on our team. As I looked around at the cameras flashing from the local press and faces lit up with bright lights for television interviews, I realized we were a part of something big here. For weeks it had been advertised on flyers all around town. Hundreds of little pieces of paper with before and after photos and information about the “surgery camp” were scattered across Dehradun.

Indian Media
Eventually, things began to settle down. The doctors worked their way through hundreds of patients, while I wandered through the waiting crowd. As I smiled to the people who had traveled all this way to get here, I was struck by the warmth and sincerity I received back. I remembered a friend telling me about the traditional Indian greeting, Namaste, meaning “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.”

India ExaminationsBack in the “Theater,” doctors would occasionally step into the makeshift break room, a small set-up with a few chairs and a gurney, where they could catch a few minutes of peace from the chaos of the day. They were sleep-deprived, hungry, and felt they were getting behind. Never before had they had this many people show up for a clinic day. They expected 100 and got five times that amount. They were faced with having to accept the possibility that they might not be able to see everyone in need.

In my last walk through the crowd, I caught a glimpse of someone’s disfigured hand for a brief moment before it was tucked away behind the drape of a shawl. I slowly realized that many of these burned faces were hidden behind headscarves and veils. Scalps that once had hair were covered with hats. Many of these patients were living their lives in the shadows, hiding the shame of their deformities.

At the end of the day, I packed up and got ready to leave, but the doctors and medical staff were still working hard. Some of the patients had pushed their way through the glass doors and into the examining room, restlessly waiting to find out if they’d be able to get surgery.

Later, I asked one of the doctors how the day went. He said that the true test would come tomorrow. “The first surgery is always the hardest,” he told me. “If something’s going to go wrong, it will be then.” We were all going to have to wait and see.

— Sarah

India Scars

 

The Longest Day Is Only the Beginning: Seattle to Dehradun With ReSurge International

IndiaSarah Durkee, a UX designer at RealSelf, was chosen to join ReSurge International on a trip to Dehradun, India, to help those in need of reconstructive surgical care. She’s pictured here (third from left) at the airport with the volunteer team of doctors and staff.

We traveled more than 36 hours to reach Dehradun. At 36, I stopped counting. There were four flights and a van ride, and it was an adventure, to say the least. But before I tell you about my purpose in coming here, I feel like I should tell you how I got here in the first place.

I never thought I’d go to India, and I definitely never thought I would experience it with a humanitarian organization. I feel honored to be here, witnessing what I am. I feel exceptionally lucky to be an employee of RealSelf, a company that feels so strongly about helping people — people on the other side of the world whose problems could more easily be ignored.

Through ReSurge International, a nonprofit organization that provides reconstructive surgical care in developing countries, RealSelf sponsored a team to travel to India. This group of plastic surgeons, nurses, and other volunteers donated their time and talents so those who have been severely scarred due to burns and accidents can be given much-needed medical care.

The night before I came, serendipitously, I met an Indian woman who described her home country as raw. She told me I’d see some of the poorest people I would ever see — many missing limbs and begging for food — right next to those whose lives oozed opulence. I forgot these words before boarding my plane to Dubai, but my experience on that first leg of the trip served as a stark contrast to what I would later see.

The plane itself was a double-decker, advertised as “the largest in the world.” Stairs reached up into a second level, where first class passengers enjoyed private suites complete with showers and a butler. (Or so I heard. I wasn’t actually allowed up there.) Even for those of us who didn’t shell out $20,000 for a plane ticket, economy was unlike any other I’ve experienced. We were given warm towels, served more food than we could eat, and provided other conveniences like sleep masks, toothbrushes, and 14-inch LED screens to watch any of the hundreds of movies available.

After more than 20 hours, four movies, and a plane-swap in Dubai, we touched down in New Delhi. I immediately noticed something different about the air. There was a heaviness to it — almost a smokiness — and a slight haze I couldn’t quite place.

When we stepped outside, it was still night. (It had been night for us for nearly 24 hours.) Local time was 2:40 a.m., though you never would’ve guessed it given all of the activity happening outside the airport. Horns blared, people crowded at the entrance, and men tried to carry our luggage so they might earn a small tip.

That’s when I realized what was different about the air. Through the glaring airport lights, the sky hung heavy with smog, a thick gray curtain that capped visibility at 20 meters.

A shuttle took us to the domestic airport, where we waited another eight hours for our next flight. We boarded a small twin-engine plane, where flight attendants served Dixie cups of water on a plastic tray. Finally, we landed in Dehradun.

The van that picked us up didn’t have enough seats, so two members of the group sat on the floor. As we sped past motorbikes and dodged oncoming traffic, I stared out the window, taking everything in. Hundreds of small shacks cobbled together from scraps lined the street. There were people selling snacks and produce, while others sold hot food cooked over stoves made from barrels. Judging by appearances, most of the people in this area were extremely poor.

We arrived at our hotel, where we dragged ourselves and our luggage upstairs to our rooms. I plopped myself on the bed and stared mindlessly at my phone for a few minutes. Then the lights went out. It was midday, but I was sitting in complete darkness. I realized my room had no window. I got up, found the door, and went up to the roof of the hotel. I gazed out over the tops of trees and the buildings of Dehradun. They looked abandoned, like modern ruins surrounded by jungle.

I wandered outside, where there were no sidewalks, just clumps of haphazardly parked vehicles and piles of garbage and rubble. I wove in and out of parked motorbikes, occasionally being pushed out into oncoming traffic. Within a few feet, I saw a bearded man sitting at the side of the road hunched over a fire. There was a blanket spread out on the ground nearby. I wondered if he lived there, if he called the side of the street his home. I contemplated giving him money, but kept walking. I felt guilt wash over me. I told myself I’d check on him the next day to make myself feel better about doing nothing to help.

I went back to the hotel to have dinner, where I kept nodding off at the table. The next day would be clinic day, where all of the people who traveled — some for days — in hopes of getting treatment would be screened by the surgical team. We’d have to get an early start so the doctors could have a chance at seeing the hundreds of people who needed surgery. I excused myself from the table and I walked to my room, where I poured myself into bed. The longest day I’d ever had was over, but I knew this was just the beginning of what’s sure to be a life-changing experience. I hope you’ll follow along with me in the coming days.

— Sarah