November 18, 2009 -- Ask Smile Train partner Dr. Michelle Aportadera (“Doc Mitzi” to colleagues, friends and patients) about one of her favorite success stories, and she will tell you about the shy, 13-year- old girl with a cleft who showed up to one of her traveling operating rooms in a mining town north of Davao City, Philippines, to support her friend, who was there to receive surgery.
The girl’s mother had abandoned her when she was born with a cleft, and her father had died. Her grandmother abused her because of her cleft. Doc Mitzi learned that her aunt was a midwife, who promised to take care of her as soon as she learned of the abuse.
“I told her I wanted to do the surgery, but she resisted, saying that she was only there to help her friend. She was extremely shy. The crew had already packed up all of the equipment and it was the end of the day. I told my crew to unpack everything, and I had completed her surgery in about 35 minutes,” said Doc Mitzi. “After the surgery, she gave me a big hug. When I came back 10 days later to check on her, I brought her lip gloss and powder. We take for granted little things like being able to wear lip gloss. She is now back at school and living happily with her aunt.”
This is just one of the many happy endings thanks to the work of Doc Mitzi, and her resourceful team located on the island of Mindanao, situated in the Southeastern region in the Philippines. Doc Mitzi is the Head of Plastic Surgery at the Maharlika Charity Foundation, which has become the Smile Train’s second largest partner in the Philippines. Since receiving Smile Train funding in early 2008, Doc Mitzi devotes close to 80% of her time to Smile Train procedures and increased the number of cleft surgeries that she is able to provide by 500%.
Doc Mitzi was recently in New York City to visit Smile Train headquarters as well as accept the Smile Train Hero award, given out annually to a deserving Smile Train partner who has gone above and beyond the call of duty.
“I am so thankful to Smile Train for all of the help they have given me since my organization became a Smile Train partner,” Doc Mitzi said upon receiving the award. “We always had the people and the passion but we didn’t have the financing to make it all happen. Smile Train has given me the chance to fix a child as soon as we saw the need. I don’t have to find a sponsor, or wait for funding. It is done.”
She and her team are unique in that they don’t wait for the patients to come to them; because of the remote parts of this region, rough terrain and safety concerns, Doc Mitzi travels around the island and sets up temporary cleft centers to perform surgery on the more than 150,000 untreated clefts found in this region. This is in addition to the work that she does at her hospital in Davao City fixing clefts, working on children with burns, and her own private practice.
Her trips always require her team to be extremely flexible, and each journey requires serious obstacles to overcome. Many of the locations take up to six to eight hours to reach because of the rough, unpaved roads. She travels to her patients rather than the other way around because almost all of them are indigent, with no access to major centers. Her patients have fear and anxiety to leave home, as well as a mistrust of treatment and medical intervention. In addition to all of this, many of the areas are war-torn, due to the ongoing conflict that has ripped through the area for decades.
Doc Mitzi admits she couldn’t do any of this without her partner, Dr. Ben Valdez. The two consider each other family, and remember studying together in medical school. Dr. Valdez is the first to go into an area of conflict and begin negotiating with the rebels, asking first for a cease-fire and next for them to allow all of their children with cleft to be allowed to have surgery.
“Before Smile Train, I had such a hard time mobilizing people to help with the cause,” Dr. Valdez said. “We were begging people for funds. When Smile Train came in, it became so much easier for us. So to be honest, coordinating with the rebels is the easy part. It was finding the funding that was difficult. What is even more spectacular is that whenever we are doing surgeries, fighting stops.”
Once a geographic location is determined and a cease-fire negotiated, Doc Mitzi goes in with her team, her equipment, and plenty of food – including ice cream for patients after their surgeries are complete. Both she and Dr. Valdez have slept on floors, desks, and in patients’ homes. They have set up shop and performed surgeries in Senior Citizen centers, basketball courts and even a Mayor’s office. On one trip, when a typhoon knocked out the power, everyone held up their cell phones and Doc Mitzi completed the surgery by their collective light before the generator kicked in.
Her team also relies on creativity and ingenuity to perform each surgery as efficiently as possible. A local bakery and flour company provides flour sacks, which are then cleaned and made into scrubs and operating sheets for the patients. They accept donations of food, toys and clothing for their patients as well. For many of her small patients, it is the first time they have ever tasted ice cream.
Temporary peace brokers, Smile Train partner surgeons and heroes to all of their patients are just a few ways to describe this dynamic duo. Doc Mitzi is also called “Miss Cleft Lip” by the local media, and says that if her life were a television show, it would be called “Adventures in Mitzi’s World,” complete with drama, comedy, and a bit of suspense. And now she can add Smile Train Hero to that ever-growing list.
“We are so happy to be able to recognize Doc Mitzi for her dedication, talent and passion for alleviating the suffering of disadvantaged children with cleft lip and palate in the Philippines,” said Brian Mullaney, Smile Train Co-Founder and President. “We would also like to congratulate her on her remarkable accomplishments in the field of cleft care, and thank her for helping Smile Train change the lives of children every day.”
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