Rotarians on a mission | October 5, 2012 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Column - October 5, 2012

Rotarians on a mission

by Jeb Bing

Two Pleasanton Rotarians -- Tom Fox and Sandra Lepley -- are back from medical missions that repaired cleft palates and cleft lips on more than 100 undernourished and impoverished children and a few adults in rural India.

The two volunteered their time to serve with Rotaplast International, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization founded in 1992 as a world community service project that is part of Rotary International. Rotaplast is committed to changing lives through reconstructive surgery, often under difficult conditions in Third World countries. To date, volunteers serving on Rotaplast missions have performed 15,000 surgeries on 175 missions in 18 countries.

Tom Fox was one of 25 volunteers on a mission that ended late last month. The group included three surgeons, four anesthetists, a pediatrician, four operating room nurses, two recovery room nurses, and eight Rotarians who served a non-medical support staff. In the field for 14 days, including travel time, the group stayed at the Paris International Hotel, which hardly matched the name with almost no hot water and a shower that consisted of a bucket with a measuring cup to serve as a scoop. Surgeries were performed in a nearby hospital, even less clean and where the Rotaplast team had to bring all the supplies they needed (including toilet paper for the lavatories), which had to be sterilized repeatedly as the surgeries proceeded.

The Fox mission operated on 64 patients on this trip, down from the 80-100 patients usually served. That's because more than half who signed up for care came with burns suffered earlier that had left scar tissue restricting their movements. By grafting new skin onto these burns, Fox said many of the patients were able to raise their arms or use their feet for the first time. These are major surgeries taking half a day with follow-up care required.

Repairing cleft lips and palates can be done much faster, with a child born with a lip split to the nose recovering from the surgery in 1-1/2 hours almost completely healed. Fox said many of these children have been ostracized since birth, becoming an embarrassment to their families who tended to shun them and subject to abuse by classmates if they even went to school.

Cleft palates are less noticeable, but those with severe problems have difficulty eating and talking. Like those who had their lips repaired, they left the hospital recovery room with a clean bill of health and no outward signs they ever had a problem.

"The most satisfying part of these Rotaplast missions is seeing the smiles on the faces of children who really couldn't smile before," Fox said. "What we accomplish is to change these patients' lives forever, and for the better."

Cleft lips and palates can be genetic and are mostly caused by the lack of folic acids in diets, such as leafy vegetables. Most of the victims are poor with meals largely consisting of rice and beans. While a common deformity in India, it's even a bigger problem in the back road communities in South America, where Fox and Lepley have also served on Rotaplast missions.

In addition to India, 21 other countries have hosted Rotaplast teams, including Vietnam, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador, Romania, China, Ethiopia, Nepal, Brazil and the Philippines.

Fox has been on 18 Rotaplast trips, serving on teams that have performed surgeries on 75-80 patients each time. Although Rotaplast with financial support from Rotary International covers the cost of supplies and lodging, volunteers pay the costs of their own transportation to countries such as Venezuela, the Philippines and India, as Fox has done

"When you see the good results of the patients we've helped through Rotaplast, it's all worth it," Fox said.