Medics take their skills to re­mote des­ti­na­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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.

The Aus­tralasian

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.’’

in­ter­plast.org.au

Sur­geon Peter Haertsch

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