Tour of Duty

fall2011_tour

Story and photos by Meg McKinney

When UAB plastic surgeon Luis Vasconez, M.D., and his sister, UAB research assistant Beatrice Engels, return to their hometown of Ambato, Ecuador, each year, they bring a most unusual gift: an entire hospital’s worth of surgeons, nurses, and therapists.

Along with their brother, Henry Vasconez, M.D., a professor of plastic and pediatric surgery at the University of Kentucky, and Alfonso Yonfa, M.D., an anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, the siblings created Medical Mission Ecuador (MME) 19 years ago. This February, 84 Americans from 13 states—including 18 from Alabama—made the trip. They spent a week at three Ambato hospitals, performing surgeries and providing physical and speech therapy for indigenous people—all for free. “We bring specialists in obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, orthopedics, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and other fields,” says Luis Vasconez.

Hundreds of patients and family members travel from outlying villages and towns to the hospitals, hoping to see the American doctors. This year the physicians and staff conducted 547 patient evaluations and performed 151 surgeries. The physical therapy team evaluated and treated 380 patients, with 60 receiving splints and special shoes; four patients received prostheses this year, and 10 wheelchairs were donated to children.

The volunteers don’t get much sleep, with days often stretching from 8:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. But R. Jobe Fix, M.D., UAB professor of surgery, who has made the trip for 17 years, says the work brings its own rewards—particularly when the children he treated in past years return to show him their report cards, bring homemade gifts, and update him on their lives after their surgeries. “We make an impact in a difficult world,” he says.