They’re monsters. They’re demons. They’re outcasts.
About one in 1,000 children is born with a cleft lip or palate. But in some parts of the world, these babies are shunned — not only by society, but by their own blood.
“In some cultures, they’re thought of as monsters or demons. Many of these kids are abandoned by their families,” said Dr. Dan Sampson, an Edina resident and associate chief of surgery at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital.
Sampson and his wife, Melanie McCall, have helped improve the lives of dozens of babies born with cleft lips and palates through Children’s Surgery International, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that sends volunteer medical teams to a half-dozen countries around the world.
Sampson, an oral-maxillofacial surgeon, has made an annual surgical trip to Hermosillo, Mexico, for the past three years. On each trip, McCall has accompanied him to handle logistics, medical records and photography. Hermosillo, a city of about 900,000, was chosen for the trips because it serves a large rural region yet has relatively modern medical facilities for the bone-graft procedures that Sampson specializes in.
Most of the children Sampson sees are from poor families. The Children’s Surgery International medical missions may be their only chance to have their issue addressed. The medical teams typically do more than 50 surgeries on each weeklong trip. Even so, the volunteers can’t see all the young patients who vie for a spot.
“It’s the saddest part of the whole experience,” McCall said. “Someone has to tell those families that they can’t have the surgery.”
Children’s Surgery International was formed in 2001 as an offshoot of Operation Smile, a national medical group that specializes in cleft lip and palate surgery. The Minneapolis group wanted to expand its mission to other forms of surgery, although cleft lip and palate remains a key focus.
Last year, a Children’s Surgery International trip to Liberia was canceled because of the Ebola outbreak. But the group is sending a team to Bangladesh next month and is preparing for its first-ever trip to Vietnam later this year.
Children’s Surgery International, which is not affiliated with any religious group, runs on a tight budget. All participants donate their time and pay a portion of their expenses. The group will hold its main annual fundraiser, the Passport to Smiles Gala, in April.
The rewards are great, McCall said. One teenage girl with a cleft palate was unable to speak clearly. After surgery, she spoke clearly for the first time in her life.
“You could say this is just a cosmetic surgery, but it’s not,” McCall said. “In many cases, it’s integral to having an opportunity to be successful and have a happy life.
“It’s so emotional,” she said. “They’re scared to death. The area is very poor, very rural. Many of them have never been in a hospital before. And when they see their child after the surgery, many of the parents just weep with joy.”
For Sampson, the trips are an opportunity for the pure practice of medicine, freed of any worries about insurance, staffing or budgets.
“I can go in and do this and not worry about whether the insurance company will approve it,” he said. “This is what we’re trained to do; this is what we love to do. The only considerations are, is this right for the child and can we do it safely?”
Said McCall: “There’s an overwhelming sense of satisfaction to being in a relationship with people I would otherwise never meet. And helping to make a family’s life better, giving a child a better chance.”
And, she added with a smile, “I get to see my husband work.”