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Doctors without borders

  Sunday, 29 l 05 l 2011  Source: The Sunday Times   
By: Lin Wenjian

A number of doctors here go on volunteer missions overseas to treat poor local patients for free 

At least once a year, some doctors here trade their comfortable, air-conditioned consultation rooms to go overseas to treatment facilities that are often dirty and lacking basic amenities. But it is for a good cause: Their overseas medical missions benefit thousands of underprivileged people who may otherwise have little or no access to medical treatment, even if they could afford it. These caring doctors – who come from both private and public practice – forego not just their time, but sometimes their income as well, to volunteer for the missions, and do not charge for their services. Some volunteers even dip into their own pockets for travel expenses.  

Putting smiles back on faces

Who: Dr Vincent Yeow (above), 47, head of the Cleft and Craniofacial Centre at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and field medical director of Operation Smile Singapore

Where: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan

As a prominent plastic surgeon, Dr Yeow is used to seeing patients who want a sharper nose or bigger eyes. But his skills go beyond improving the appearance of the people he has treated. In fact, the affable doctor has put his training to arguably greater use, providing free surgical treatments for the poor in the region as the field medical director of Operation Smile Singapore. This charity provides free treatment to children and adults who suffer from cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities.

A cleft lip or palate is an opening in the lip or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. It is caused by a number of factors including infection, maternal smoking and malnutrition. Five times a year, Dr Yeow, who is married with two sons aged 11 and eight, takes four or five days off from work in the hospital to go on such missions. Accompanying him will be a team of 10 to 40 people comprising surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and administrators.

Costs range from $40,000 to $100,000, including equipment required for the surgeries. The money is raised mostly from private or institutional sponsors. “On a typical service mission, we would perform 100 procedures,” he says.

Although he has performed countless such procedures since embarking on his first mission in 1995, one particular case remains etched in his memory. “Once, when we were in Indonesia many years ago, there was an elderly man who brought his grandson in for surgery. Both of them had clefts of the lip and we decided to repair both,” he says. “When the old man saw his new face for the first time, he cried and couldn’t believe that he could look so good after all these years.” Seeing the smiles on his patients has served to galvanise Dr Yeow. When asked where he will be heading to next, he says in his typically understated manner: “Wherever there is a need.”

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