Jill Beathard

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August 28, 2012
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Spreading smiles

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - At 2,800 residents, Snowmass Village would probably be considered a small town. But its part-time and full-time residents accomplish things that reach big numbers.

Two such residents are Mel Spira and Jack Demos, retired surgeons who continue to practice in Third World countries through the nonprofit Surgicorps International. Demos founded Surgicorps in 1994, and the organization has performed surgeries for close to 4,000 patients in 17 countries since then.

"I've always wanted to travel," said Demos, of Pittsburgh, Penn., and the Pines in Snowmass Village. "I thought it'd be a wonderful idea to combine traveling with medicine."

Demos originally ran the trips out of his practice in Pennsylvania. The first trips were to the Philippines.

"There are so many countries the world over that need help," Demos said. "Health care for most of these countries is not a priority. The poor don't get treated."

"You don't realize how fortunate we are to be born here," said Spira, a plastic surgeon and full-time Snowmass resident who has been on four previous trips.

Surgicorps tries to meet the unique needs of the country it is visiting by bringing physicians in the appropriate fields. A large portion of what the volunteers do is plastic surgery, addressing cleft lips and palettes, burns and deformities.

Spira said in most cases, parents of children born with cleft lips did nothing to cause it. The likelihood of it happening is based on family history and other factors.

"Here in the U.S., a child (with a cleft lip) is operated on virtually immediately," Spira said. "Overseas that doesn't happen."

Children with a cleft lip or palette might have trouble eating, drinking and speaking, and they can have repeated infections.

"This child may lack self esteem, his family may be ashamed, he may not go to school," Spira explained.

Many of Surgicorps' patients are children and babies, but they also see many grown adults, with children of their own.

"You wonder how lives would have been different ... if those had been treated early," Spira said.

Surgicorps works with private groups or government entities in the countries they want to practice in to set up a hospital, operating rooms, nurses, doctors, interpreters, and, of course, patients.

In Bhutan, Surgicorps has partnered with the royal government to set up surgeries. In May, Ashi Dorji Wangchuck, queen of Bhutan, presented the nonprofit with a certificate of appreciation, the first such honor that has been given to an organization from another country.

Surgicorps has conducted "Surgical Camps" in Paro, Bhutan, annually for six years. This year's camp included surgeries for 59 patients, as well as knee injections for more than 125. Volunteer dentists also accompanied the doctors for the first time, teaching preventative care and providing dental treatment to children in rural Bhutan.

Surgicorps has similar commitments to five of the countries it works with, scheduling trips far in advance.

"We'll try to treat everyone who comes in that we can treat safely and efficiently," Demos said.

Sometimes that means turning away a child who comes down with a cold right before the surgeons arrive, a child whose parents have anticipated the operation for months or more and will now have to wait more year.

"You cry," Demos said. "You almost become enured to the fact that that's going to happen."

"When we go overseas we have a parent... trusting us and simply saying do the best that you can," Spira said. "Surgicorps and things like this are why you go into medicine. If you're in medicine and you don't enjoy going on these trips, you don't need to be in medicine."

From the start, the trips have always included medical and nonmedical people, including youth and medical or pre-med students. According to Demos, Surgicorps' reach is a two-sided coin: It provides health care to those in need, and aids the character development of those who make the journey.

"I wasn't trying to convince them to become doctors or nurses," Demos said of the young people he's invited on the trips. "I was trying to show them life is not a spring vacation in Snowmass or a new pair of sneakers every six months. ... (I wanted) to teach them about giving back."

Mission participants pay their own way, and any fundraising the organization does goes to helping patients.

Even for nonmedical volunteers, there are always jobs to do, from picking up trash to cleaning instruments to coloring with kids in the waiting rooms. After the mission part of the trip is done, some volunteers will take time to see the country they're visiting.

By the time Demos retired in July 2008, he was taking up to four trips a year.

"Primarily because I was alone in practice, I didn't feel it was fair to my patients to be away that much," he said. "I wanted to develop Surgicorps even more, so the time was right for me to retire."

Surgicorps has that many trips scheduled for 2012, too. A mission group just returned from Guatemala in early August, where Spira said they saw more than 100 patients. The group included an OB/GYN doctor and a general surgeon, so the doctors were able to address a variety of needs.

This is the fourth time a group from Surgicorps has returned to that hospital in Antigua.

"So we end up at a hospital that is receptive to our delivery of health care," Spira said. "We're able to see (past) patients, see the follow-up and see the results."

Demos and Spira will join another group, including a hand surgeon, embarking for Zambia on Sept. 14. Children are often left alone to watch over fires built for cooking or heating huts, so the doctors will treat primarily burns and damage from burn scars.

The upcoming Zambia mission will be Spira's fifth with Surgicorps. He got involved after becoming friendly with Demos in Snowmass Village. Spira - who is still a professor of plastic surgery at Baylor University, where he goes on rounds and does some teaching - has participated in other mission organizations but says he likes Surgicorps because the volunteers all pay their own way, so donated funds go toward patient supplies and needs more so than in groups that pay for participants airfare and lodging.

"The dice are rolled for all of our lives," Spira said. "To me, I think part of everyone's existence should be giving something back."


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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 28, 2012 06:20PM Published Aug 28, 2012 05:41PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.