Bringing smiles: returning to Bangladesh with a purpose

GSK PULSE Volunteer, Len is back working with a non-profit organization, Rotaplast, to provide pre-operative and post-operative pediatric care for cleft palate surgeries in Bangladesh.

GSK PULSE Volunteer, Len is back working with a non-profit organization, Rotaplast, to provide pre-operative and post-operative pediatric care for cleft palate surgeries in Bangladesh.

Nine months ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer as a pediatrician on medical missions with Rotaplast, a non-profit humanitarian organization providing free reconstructive cleft palate/cleft lip operations and treatment for children in need worldwide. The volunteer work took place in rural hospitals in Udaipur, India and Chittagong, Bangladesh and was supported by GlaxoSmithKline's PULSE Volunteer Partnership. Volunteer work is encouraged at GSK where our goal is to run a responsible, values-based business. The PULSE program empowers employees to make a sustainable difference for communities and patients--and supports employees' development--during an immersion experience. 

Soon I embark on the 2012 phase of my PULSE assignment--I will be returning with Rotaplast to Chittagong, Bangladesh.The Rotaplast mission to Bangladesh will take place from Jan 29 through February 11 at the Nurture Center for Disabled and Paralyzed in Chittagong. Chittagong is a port city in Southwestern Bangladesh, the country's second largest city, its busiest seaport, and among the ten fastest growing cities in the world. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The country has a stable, growing economy, but living standards have yet to improve for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of its population of over 165 million. About 40% of the population lives on under $1 a day.

My previous Rotaplast experience in Bangladesh last May was exceptional and I look forward to returning, along with a surgeon from Ohio and an anesthesiologist from California (and 20 new colleagues). Last year we operated on 105 patients, creating new smiles, and improving the lives of terrific children and their warm, friendly and resilient families. Our local hosts were generous with their time and support for the economically disadvantaged people in the country. It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 individuals in Bangladesh with untreated cleft lips and palates.

Rotaplast's approach to sustainability includes educating and collaborating with local physicians and nurses and counseling families about how to prevent cleft palate anomalies. Also, when we return to a center we see if patients we operated on earlier would benefit from additional surgery. It will be wonderful to see many children and their families from our last mission. One of the children we operated on and her parents are pictured in the photo--before her surgery and after with her new smile!

I have been in touch with local doctors I met last May in Chittagong asking them to pre-identify patients and check for nutritional anemia. Malnutrition is a serious issue in Bangladeshand it is not safe to operate on patients with severe anemia. Hopefully the local doctors can start the children on iron supplements so they can be cleared for surgery.

In case you are wondering, a cleft is the separation of the parts of the lip or roof of the mouth that usually comes together during the early weeks of pregnancy. A cleft lip can range in severity from a slight notch in the red part of the upper lip to a complete separation of the lip extending into the nose. A cleft can occur on one or both sides of the upper lip. A cleft palate (roof of the mouth) may occur as part of the cleft lip deformity or as an isolated cleft palate.

Other congenital malformations can be associated with cleft lip and palate. There are a number of reasons for the cleft anomaly including a genetic predisposition, diet, lack of adequate vitamins especially folic acid, smoking while pregnant, and pollution. A genetic predisposition can be triggered by any of these factors thus increasing the chance for the cleft anomaly to appear more frequently among those who are poor.

I recently read the book "Drive" written by Daniel Pink (Riverhead Books, 2009), which is a thought-provoking book about motivation. I was struck by the following passage: "We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better smelling horses galloping after that day's carrot. We know--if we've spent time with young children or remember ourselves at our best--that we're not destined to be passive and compliant. We're designed to be active and engaged. And we know the richest experiences in our lives aren't when we're clamoring for validation from others, but when we're listening to our own voice--doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves." Having the great fortune to volunteer with Rotaplast and to have the support of GSK brings to me a tremendous feeling of purpose.

I plan to blog here on More Than Medicine every few days. The Rotaplast team also have a blog at Chittagong Blog. I look forward to sharing my stories.