A team from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery travels annually to Colombia to offer critically-needed treatment to children who would otherwise not receive care.

MGHfCOver the last 16 years, William (Jay) G. Austen, Jr., MD, chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Burn Surgery, and a team of about 20 Massachusetts General Hospital surgeons, anesthesiologists, residents, recovery room technicians and operating room nurses, have treated hundreds of patients in Colombia — and changed their lives forever.

Along with their medical expertise, they bring their own equipment because that technology is unavailable in Colombia at the free care children’s hospital, Casa del Ninos.

“As soon as we arrive, we set up shop,” Dr. Austen explains. “They give us one operating room to use, which we divide into two separate ORs, and then we set up recovery rooms and all of our equipment. Basically, we create our own hospital within a hospital.”

Surgery and Healing

In 10 days, they tirelessly perform more than 60 surgical operations and see roughly 150 children for follow-up visits to make sure they’re healing properly.

A team from MGH works to provide transformative, life-changing surgeries.
A team from MGH works to provide transformative, life-changing surgeries.

“We operate primarily on children with deformities like cleft lip and palate, burns, traumatic injuries and congenital deformities,” Dr. Austen says. “The people we serve on these missions are the poorest of the poor. Many of the families live in the jungle in between Venezuela and Colombia. Even if they could afford medical care, they wouldn’t have access to it.”

Teaching is also an important part of what Dr. Austen’s team does in Colombia. They work with local surgeons and health professionals to teach proper technique. “Our hope is that the health professionals we teach will go on to teach other local clinicians,” Dr. Austen says.

Generous Donors with Impact

Although the doctors and medical team donate their time, Dr. Austen and his team have always led the fundraising efforts to generate the money needed for this annual trip. This year, they benefited from a generous gift of $500,000 from James and Kim Taylor to support Dr. Austen’s work helping children in need. The Taylor’s donation was made at the 15th annual Storybook Ball fundraising event in October 2014, which raised more than $1.8 million to support MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s efforts to enhance family-centered care, as well as pediatric community and global health initiatives.

In an auction at the Ball, generous Mass General donor, Tangley Lloyd, won the chance to accompany Dr. Austen and his team on this year’s trip, which she described as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Paula O’Keeffe, an MGH volunteer who also accompanied Dr. Austen and his team, noted how fascinating it was to be able to watch them perform the surgeries. “It was incredible to see them just fix the cleft lips – suddenly the lip would go back to normal,” she recalls. “It was an amazing, special trip.”

Changing Young Lives

When the team first met him, he was begging on the street for survival, but after a successful operation he now goes to school.

For the children, some of whom travel 400 miles to see the Mass General team, receiving this treatment makes all the difference in their young lives. One child, in particular, Kiener, who was operated on four years ago, has made remarkable progress.

He had two major congenital deformities including a bilateral cleft palate. When the team first met him, he was begging on the street for survival, but after a successful operation he now goes to school.

“These trips to Colombia last for 10 days, and those are my favorite 10 days of the year,” says Dr. Austen. “Doing this work is a remarkable, life-changing experience.”

To learn more about how you can support the MGH Fund and programs like this one, contact us.