GALVESTON, Texas - Until last week, 2-year-old Maria and 14-year-old Paola struggled each day with limb deformities that made it difficult for them to walk or play with other children.
Now, after six weeks of recovery, these two children will be essentially normal, their lives changed overnight by the volunteered surgical skills of UTMB orthopedic surgeons Kelly Carmichael and James Bynum.
The two physicians returned this week from Jutiapa, Guatemala, where they participated in an Operation Rainbow medical mission focused on providing orthopedic care for children and young adults in Central and South America.
It took two hours to rebuild Paola's inverted clubfoot, now completely corrected, and almost twice as long to reshape Maria's pelvis to allow her congenitally dislocated hips to be surgically repaired. Now the toddler will be able to walk normally.
These young patients, who might well have lived their whole lives with severe deformities, were only two of more than 200 patients seen by the medical team that completed 43 surgeries in four "very long" days, according to Dr. Carmichael.
The team was led by Dr. Taylor Smith, one of the Operation Rainbow founders, and included three surgeons, three anesthesiologists, five nurses and four medical technicians from San Francisco, Galveston and Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. This was Carmichael's fifth mission with Operation Rainbow; his sixth will be next month to Ecuador.
"For me, it's an experience not like any other," Carmichael said. "You see the faces of these truly grateful people, happy children and thankful parents."
"It's special to be able to offer what we do. It's rewarding in a way that's hard to describe. It's also a great educational experience," he said.
Bynum, the fifth year orthopedic resident that accompanied Carmichael, agreed. "These people face enormous obstacles everyday just to survive, much less having to do so without the full use of their arms or legs. They are all tough people and they genuinely appreciated any care we could give them. It really makes my day-to-day struggles seem insignificant."
Dr. Hector Juarez, the medical director for the Hospital Nacional, was efficient and prepared for the group's arrival, Carmichael said. Juarez had prescreened more than 500 patients and prepared two operating rooms, one with an anesthesia machine, and each cooled by small window air conditioners. When they arrived, the medical team was able to focus on seeing patients and getting the work done. They worked nearly 14 hours each day.
The surgeons treated patients suffering from chronic deformities, clubfeet and fractures that had never been set.
"The hospital was very clean and the local doctors were receptive and knowledgeable," Carmichael said. "Guatemala City is only a 2 1/2-hour flight from Houston, but it's a world away," he said. "They don't have the equipment and the resources we have but they are doing all they can with what they do have."
The local physicians who will provide follow-up care for the patients scrubbed-in with the surgical team. "They were interested in learning and wanted to help," he said. Carmichael will continue to consult with physicians via e-mail.
Operation Rainbow, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, arranges five to six volunteer medical missions throughout the world each year. Medical personnel pay their own way and bring their own supplies. They are limited to two 50-pound cases each. Founded in Houston, the organization is now based in San Francisco.
The nondenominational missions provide working practitioners an opportunity to exchange ideas and to learn about each other's cultures while providing free humanitarian medical services to children in need.
For Carmichael and Bynum, it also offered an opportunity at the trip's end to get in a few hours of fishing off the coast of Antigua. The duo succeeded in catching enough dorado for the team's farewell dinner.