Print Page | Sign In
Journal of ASPR - Summer 2012 - Clearing Customs, Changing Lives
Share |
Untitled Document

Clearing Customs, Changing Lives

By Tom Lathen, CMSR, AASPR, Senior Staff Human Resources, Scott & White Healthcare, Temple, TX

The best souvenir from a medical mission always clears customs: Joy. That’s what I have brought back home from five medical missions in the past nine years.

As a physician recruiter, I had a unique opportunity to observe international physicians in their home countries. My degree in communications qualified me to work as a photojournalist for medical mission teams on cleft palate/lip surgery missions to Bolivia, Guatemala, China, and most recently, India.

As the recession has worn on, we hear a great deal about the generation growing up with less than its predecessors (you and me). While that may very well be true, a greater truth is that every American child has greater access to healthcare than any child in an emerging nation. The countries I have visited have a frightening number of families and children living in desperate conditions with no medical safety net.

After 12 hours of surgery, the change in this boy’s life was miraculous: He is now able to eat on his own, is learning to speak, and will be able to participate in school. Photo courtesy Rotaplast.

Enter Rotaplast, a humanitarian mission of Rotary service clubs and volunteer physicians and nurses from around the world. Rotaplast is a non-profit organization that pools medical and non-medical volunteers (Rotarians) to perform 50 to 100 surgeries in about 10 to 11 days of a typical mission.

Volunteers go because they want to help. But as I mentioned at the start of this story, you return home realizing you are the one who has been given a special gift: The joy of selfless helping. The days of a Rotaplast trip begin with 12 to 20 hours on cramped airplanes. The workdays are 12 to16 hours a day when you are in country. Surgeons, nurses and non-medical volunteers work together doing the “menial” jobs like moving heavy boxes of equipment and supplies.

There is also the chance to see another country in a fashion no tourist can ever do. Teams traditionally are met by local Rotary volunteers. In countries with no Rotary Clubs, other local volunteers step forward. You get to know these people as co-workers, and in most cases as friends. You also get to know the families of patients at their most joyful and vulnerable times. It is a unique chance to get to know people of another culture, combined with the chance to show those same people that Americans, Canadians, and other western cultures are made up of charitable, helping individuals. It’s a win-win-win!

Cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries are performed by plastic surgeons. But as many of us know, these surgeries are not simply cosmetic. Cleft deformity can lead to problems in speech, breathing, eating, socialization and personal development.

Where appropriate, Rotaplast surgeons also do reconstructive surgery on burn patients.

We met a burn patient named Karma on our recent trip to India. Karma was burned so badly that his face appeared to have melted. His chin was fused to his chest, and he could not open his mouth to eat. He had been fed through a small spoon or a straw for four years.

Karma was difficult to look at. After viewing more than 200 surgeries over the past nine years, I can tell you he was the most disfigured child I have ever seen. My first response was to turn away. However, 12 hours of surgery changed Karma’s life forever.

If you are a physician or nurse, it is pretty easy to plug into a medical mission team. Rotaplast actually pays the airfare for medical volunteers (other programs require payment). Physicians close practices for two weeks to join a Rotaplast mission team. Nurses give up two weeks of vacation to travel and work as hard as they do every day in their own hospitals.

Tom Lathan
Tom Lathen’s background in communication was put to use on the mission trip; he recorded video that was later used by a PBS station in Yakima, WA. Photo courtesy Rotaplast

Non-medical volunteers in Rotaplast must be Rotarians. So, if you are a Rotarian, visit to see about joining a team. Traditionally a local Rotary District will sponsor a mission and send willing local members. (I paid about $2,000 to participate in each of the missions I have joined.)

There are many other short-term mission opportunities. If you think it is something you would like to do, the easiest first step is to Google “medical mission teams” and start a search for the team that needs you.

If you would like to know more about the teams I have participated in, I would be glad to share a video that I produced in cooperation with KYVE-TV, a PBS station from Yakima, WA. You are welcome to contact me at


Journal of ASPR - Summer 2012