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Imagine . . . rare unrepaired surgical cases in foreign lands, coupled with surgeons in America who rarely have the opportunity to operate on such cases. A win-win situation would be to fly American medical teams overseas to help these patients. This model for plastic and reconstructive surgery was born at Stanford University Medical Center in the 1960s in an organization named Interplast. During my anesthesia training at Stanford in the 1980s I was present through the growth years of Interplast, when traveling teams were dispatched to countries around the world to perform reconstructive surgeries on cleft lip and palate patients. Interplast was founded by Donald Laub MD, who was the Chief of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Stanford from 1968-1980.
The idea for Interplast grew from the surgical history of Antonio Victoria, a 13-year-old with cleft lip and palate deformities that made him a social outcast in his home country of Mexico. Antonio arrived at Stanford University Medical Center in 1965. Dr. Robert Chase restored the boy’s appearance with three operations. Dr. Laub witnessed Antonio’s transformation and the idea for Interplast germinated.
In 1969 Dr. Laub founded Interplast (now called ReSurge International) with a mission statement to transform lives through the art of plastic and reconstructive surgery. Dr. Laub chronicles his history on his website Many People, Many Passports. Dr. Laub was the first academic to develop and lead multidisciplinary teams on humanitarian surgical trips to developing countries. The teams included plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, and nurses experienced in the care of cleft palate reconstructions. The first trip to Mexicali was financed with a mere $500 of donations. Through contact with the governments and medical authorities in four countries, initial trips were scheduled to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Seven hundred and fifty patients received treatment during the first five years, and an additional 150 were transported to Stanford for reconstructions in California. Through the 1970s and 1980s Interplast made trips to multiple other countries. The teams were made up of volunteers, and the trips were financed by charity donations.
Cleft lip and cleft palate deformities were common in Mexico and Central America, and the chances for surgical repair in the poor areas of these countries were minimal. Individuals with other deformities such as extensive burn scars were also social pariahs because of their appearance. Interplast made it a humanitarian goal to reconstruct these patients as well.
In addition to reconstructing patients, Interplast doctors educated local physicians in modern techniques. This was the medical equivalent of “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” The opportunity to reconstruct patients with deforming diagnoses uncommon in the United States was life-changing for the American doctors as well. In the United States, the specialty of plastic surgery was seen as one concerned with enhancing the cosmetic appearance of cash-paying customers who desired a more youthful or beautiful appearance. In the third world, helping change a deformed child’s appearance was a unique emotional reward for American physicians who traveled there.
The administration of the Stanford University School of Medicine understood the value of the program. Stanford lent financial support to Interplast and financed Interplast rotations as part of the residency training programs in plastic surgery and anesthesiology. In our final year of anesthesia residency, each resident was assigned to a one week Interplast trip to perform anesthetics overseas. The week was not a vacation—we were paid during that week and the expenses of our airfare were covered by Interplast. Trip members typically lodged with members of the local community.
In 1986 I was assigned to San Pedro Sula, Honduras for my Interplast experience. Two weeks before we were to depart, our team assignment was changed to Montego Bay, Jamaica. I asked my faculty member if that was a positive change and he remarked, “You just traded the dusty streets of San Pedro for a Caribbean resort city. What do you think?”
Each Interplast anesthesia team included one faculty member and one or more resident. For my trip the anesthesia staff consisted only of myself and one Stanford attending—thus I received both an introduction to international pediatric anesthesia and one-on-one teaching from an experienced professor.
A striking difference between Interplast anesthesia and American anesthesia was the lack of sophisticated equipment overseas. Interplast members carried no narcotic medications across borders, for obvious political reasons. All postoperative pain was treated with local anesthesia injections from the surgeons (if local anesthetics were available), or by verbal reassurance from the nurses in the Post Anesthesia Recovery Unit (PACU). The PACU was often full of children screaming in pain after their palate surgeries. There are many nerve endings in the human palate, and after cleft palate reconstruction the pain is roughly equivalent to the pain of a tonsillectomy without any narcotic analgesia. It was difficult to listen to the children crying, but in time their pain would subside.
In the 1980s Interplast teams carried halothane, a potent liquid general anesthetic, as well as a halothane vaporizer to convert the drug into an inhaled gas. General anesthetics were initiated by holding a mask over a child’s face while they inhaled halothane vapor until they fell asleep. We started intravenous lines after the induction of anesthesia, but we had very few medications to inject into those IVs. Because there were dozens of cases to be done, the anesthesia attending and the anesthesia resident each did their cases alone and independently, in adjoining operating rooms. The rooms were primitive and usually had piped in oxygen, but lacked nitrous oxide availability.
Complications were rare, but their incidence was not zero. The combination of tiny patients, a paucity of medical drugs, a relatively inexperienced (i.e. not fully trained yet) anesthesia resident working alone, no ICU, no laboratory, and no emergency backup made every case an adventure. We had no complications on our trip, but there were a few anecdotes of cardiac or respiratory arrests from my colleagues who went to other countries.
As a partially-trained resident, I’d anesthetized less than 20 children in my life by the time of my Interplast trip. I was nervous during every anesthetic induction and every anesthetic wakeup. There were no American lawyers or malpractice suits to worry about in Montego Bay, but my job required me to accept responsibility for a child’s life. I’d take a child from his or her parents prior to the surgery and I didn’t want anything but a happy ending for that child, his parents, or me at the end of the day. We performed anesthetics from dawn until dusk. The lines of patients awaiting surgery were long, and each family clamored for the opportunity for their child to receive life-changing free surgeries from the American team.
Dr. Laub set the tone for Interplast. He made 159 trips and personally performed over 1500 operations overseas. He was and is a giving, confident, warm, and intellectual visionary. HIs office was decorated with a 1986 photograph of himself and President Reagan in Washington DC, marking the 1986 Private Sector Initiatives award Dr. Laub received for the creation of Interplast.In 2000 Dr. Laub was diagnosed with an aggressive intravascular central nervous system lymphoma. He survived the malignancy but retired from active clinical practice. I admire him for his surgical skills, entrepreneurial skills and positive attitude. No matter what difficulties arose in one’s life, Dr. Laub was ready to listen, quick to smile, and in closing he’d say, “May the wind always be at your back.”
Dr. Laub recently authored Second Lives, Second Chances: A Surgeon’s Stories of Transformation, a book describing his life, his founding of Interplast, and his pioneer work in trans-gender surgery. The link to the book can be found here.
I’ve continued to anesthetize children throughout my career. Anesthetizing toddlers by yourself is not like riding a bike. Once you learn to do it, the skills must be retained with frequent repetition or else you run the risk of being unsafe. The majority of anesthesiologists cease anesthetizing children soon after residency, and choose not to build on the pediatric anesthesia skills they learned as trainees. I feel fortunate that my practice still includes anesthetizing children every week. In part I owe this to Interplast for introducing me to my early pediatric anesthesia experiences.
A medical career requires years of memorizing facts as well as tireless nights and days attending to sick patients to learn the art and science of healing. Interplast taught more—the doctors and nurses who journeyed to foreign lands to improve the lives of poor children reaped the emotional benefits of being a medical professional. Nothing in our job feels better than helping a sick child become healthier or helping a family gain a new lease on that child’s future.
Interplast has now become Resurge International (REF https://www.resurge.org). To date Resurge has performed 95,000 operations in 15 countries. The times are different, but the issues are still the same. Opportunities with Resurge are described on their website.
We’re lucky in America. Despite criticisms of our medical system and its costs, the availability of outstanding medical care is just a few miles down the road for most of us. Interplast patients were elated to benefit from American medicine abroad.
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