Philanthropy is something near to Dr. Frederic H. Corbin’s heart; whenever his schedule permits, he offers his corrective services to children and young adults in need all over the world.
When Dr. Corbin got wind of Operation Smile’s plans to visit Dharamsala, India, he knew he wanted to be a part of the organization’s first visit to that area. Unfortunately, by the end of that summer, he was notified that the trip had already been filled, and he would not be able to go.
Despite the disappointment he felt, Dr. Corbin was still eager to lend a hand wherever help was needed, so he began looking for other opportunities to give back to countries in need. However, as luck would have it, one of the surgeons who was originally booked for the Dharamsala trip canceled three weeks before the trip was set to begin. Operation Smile immediately contacted Dr. Corbin and asked him to be a last-minute addition.
Dr. Corbin’s patients were graciously willing to reschedule their appointments so he could attend the trip, and, in a fortunate stroke of serendipity, his wife had already scheduled a trip to India with a group of friends at the same time his trip would be taking place. All Dr. Corbin had to do was book a flight to travel with her.
India At Last
Together, they flew from Los Angeles, California, to Singapore—roughly a 15-hour trip—then boarded another flight from Singapore to New Delhi—a flight of five hours. The Operation Smile assemblage met in New Delhi, which included 40 other doctors, nurses, and support staff. They traveled long, twisting, narrow, and poorly paved roads on a bus for 15 hours to reach Dharamsala. (Many members of the team became ill with motion sickness during the trip!)
Getting To Work
Anxious to get started, Dr. Corbin and the rest of the team woke early the following day to gather at a local college, where the triaging of patients began. Families traveled from all over India to receive a consultation despite the fact that none of them were guaranteed to be selected for surgery.
The check-in system was fairly straightforward: signing in, passing through lines to fill out paperwork, then being seen by a plastic surgeon. If the patient was selected for surgery, they would then meet with an anesthesiologist, pediatrician, and phlebotomist to get prepped for surgery.
The team devoted three days to screening patients, one day to setting up operating rooms, and then five days to conducting the surgeries. The team prioritized cleft lips and palates in the operating schedule, followed by handling other deformities as time permitted. Dentists spent a lot of time making obturators—prosthetics used to close the facial skin gap caused by cleft lip or palate—which aid in the patient’s speech capabilities.
In the end, the team of six plastic surgeons from India, Canada, Russia, and America examined over 350 patients before creating an operative schedule to accomplish 150 surgeries.
Unfortunately, many of the patients who were screened were not eligible to be helped during this, either because the deformities were too severe to address in a limited surgical setup or because some of the patients were too sick or unhealthy to safely undergo surgery.
Operating in these conditions provided a lot of perspective to everyone involved, making them gracious for the conditions they were accustomed to. There were two operating rooms in Dharamsala, each fitted with three operating tables: two in the main part of the room and one in the closet.
In the United States, we are very fortunate to have our state-of-the-art hospitals; these makeshift operating rooms smelled like a public restroom. Birds flew around the ceilings, and monkeys randomly ran down the hallways. Electricity was inconsistent, so it was common for flashlights to be clicked on when a shut off happened.
One Man, 13 Hours Of Dedication
Despite the conditions, Dr. Corbin still finds it an endeavor that was more than worthwhile. Everyone who was involved was appreciative and patient, despite language barriers and long wait times.
There was one man in particular who drove 13 hours to make sure the Operation Smile team arrived as scheduled before driving back to pick up his 11-month-old son and returning to Dharamsala. Luckily, his son was cleared for surgery, and the severe bilateral cleft lip that the child developed was repaired.
Even those who were not selected for surgery were grateful to be seen and to be added to a list for future Operation Smile visit dates.
Ready to Depart
HUMBLED BY THE DALAI LAMA
The night prior to their departure, the Dalai Lama saw their mission of compassion and chose to honor the group with a private appearance, where he got to know the team on a personal basis. When talking with the Operation Smile team, the Dalai Lama referred to their mission as a virtuous act.
This trip and the opportunity to help children who were living with physical deformities were a reminder of what is at the heart of plastic surgery: improving the quality of patients’ lives.
A LASTING IMPRESSION
The trip was a deeply humbling experience for Dr. Corbin; seeing and treating all of these people who had severe defects that had gone untreated was very different than the way that healthcare functions in America.
Back home, these patients would have been seen immediately to address their concerns. Roads in the United States are generally in excellent condition, in comparison to the dilapidated, bumpy roads the team traveled in India.
The group of plastic surgeons who attended the trip were skilled, experienced, and caring; Dr. Corbin considers it an honor to have worked with each of them.