Medics take their skills to remote destinations
IT was a relatively straightforward procedure for specialist plastic and reconstructive surgeon Peter Haertsch. The associate professor prevented a young Tanzanian girl from going blind by releasing a contracture (hardened tissue) on her eyelid.
But the local team nursing the child had thought it an impossible task. So incredulous were they when the girl’s sight was restored, Haertsch tells me, that ‘‘they believed we’d performed some sort of magic’’.
Haertsch, now head of department operating theatres and plastic surgery at Concord Repatriation General Hospital in Sydney, had been volunteering in Tanzania with Interplast, a not-for-profit organisation working to repair and improve congenital and acquired medical conditions in developing countries.
branch dispatches volunteer plastic and reconstructive surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and allied health professionals across the Asia-Pacific region where they operate free- of- charge on patients who would not otherwise be able to afford treatment.
The volunteers also train and mentor local medics.
For Haertsch, the encounter with the Tanzanian girl is just one of many memories that stand out. He also recalls a young girl in The Philippines who after successful treatment for her cleft lip and palate was ‘‘absolutely thrilled to be able to drink Coca-Cola through a straw’’.
Since 1987, Haertsch has volunteered on 40 surgical and training activities in at least 13 countries, including Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Bangladesh, Tonga, Pakistan, the Solomon Islands and Nepal. Haertsch says he has found deep fulfilment in doing what comes easily to him in places where skills such as his are lacking. By performing plastic and reconstructive surgery on disadvantaged people suffering with cleft palates, growths, tumours and burn scars, he says he has given them the opportunity to get on with life as a normal being, and not suffer from teasing and ridicule.
‘‘For the children we operate on, their disability often impacts on opportunities to go to school, to work and to have families; they are often shunned. In The Philippines, when we go to some of the more remote communities, there is a great belief that people with a disability are burdened as a result of some sort of punishment from God. When we operate, there’s a tremendous sense of relief in making them look normal.’’
Surgeon Peter Haertsch