Since 1985, Healing the Children has been sending medical volunteers around the world to treat children in their home countries. We are proud of our medical trip program and thankful for the many resourceful and dedicated volunteers who have packed their bags and their scalpels and brought it to life.
Dr. R. Bruce “Mac” MacIntosh, of Detroit--the tallest person in this photo-and his Boston colleague Dr. Larry Herman have, over many years, led medical teams that have performed more than 3,000 surgical procedures on children like the two in this photo. They pioneered our medical trip program in Colombia; initiating HTC’s work in Bucaramanga, Armenia, Ibague, and Villavicencio and making many return visits to those cities.
Colombia can be a dangerous place to work, but our teams have never been threatened, and a series of different governments have maintained cordial relations with HTC. All of this could be due in part to the fact that our work in that country is always a cooperative effort; the teams work side-by-side with Colombian medical professionals.
Dr. MacIntosh and Dr. Herman’s leadership has not gone unrecognized. Healing the Children’s work has been officially cited in Colombia with the Cross of Meta Award, the Great Cross of Santander, and the key to the city of Bucaramanga.
But the sweetest, most compelling reward is always the scene outside the clinic on the first day of work. It’s the same each time: hundreds of people quietly standing in line, their children at their sides or in their arms. Many of them will have traveled for days to reach the clinic; now they patiently wait for the doors to open, hoping that this will be the day their children will be healed.
That determination and that hope have kept us coming back to Colombia. It’s the fuel for our drive to change the world, one child at a time.
Our Villavicencio 2003 team was busy: During their seventh trip to Villavicencio they and their colleagues performed 152 procedures on 101 children, repairing cleft lips and palates and doing burn reconstructive surgeries. But numbers alone can’t convey the dedication of our volunteers. Another measure is the fact that so many of them want to re-up. As Dr. MacIntosh says, “We have no difficulty in filling our rosters for Villavicencio; we have a much greater problem limiting the number of enthusiastic individuals who want to return!”
Jeff DeKock, the team’s photographer/translator, offers a thumbnail sketch of the Villavicencio scenario: “a country with political instability, warring guerrilla groups, regular kidnappings, a thriving drug trade, and extreme poverty; limited instruments, outdated equipment, and a hospital staff that spoke almost no English.”
A depressing assessment, no? But Jeff’s next words are, “What a success it was!”
It’s just the nature of an HTC medical trip: incredible obstacles, incredible rewards. The former only magnifies the latter. “The joy in the faces and hearts of the children and their families is something I will never forget,” says Jeff. “Many of these children had come from far away, some traveling for days in buses or in the back of pickup trucks, just for the chance of receiving surgery. Hundreds of people came, and we often worked late into the night so that we could treat them all.”
Jeff continues, “One boy had traveled for almost two days to reach the hospital. He and his family came every morning, hoping for surgery as soon as possible. Every day the boy chased us down the hallway to say hi and shake our hands.
“His surgery came late in the week, and as he was being prepped he kept all of us laughing with his antics. We were all tired after that long week, but his high spirits lifted ours.
“The day after the operation, we checked on him, and although he was in pain he jumped out of bed to hug us all. He couldn’t talk because of the surgery on his lip, but we knew how happy he was. We saw what a difference we’d made in his life.”
Otherwise known as changing the world, one child at a time.
Team members: Dr. Bruce MacIntosh, Dr. Larry Herman, Dr. Tom Williams, Dr. Bill Dobbin, Dr. Jim Bertz, and Dr. Andrew DeWitt, surgeons; Dr. Euger Lin, Dr. Lina Karam, and Dr. Maisa Al Sebaei, resident surgeons; Steve Cohen, Cecilia Tighe, Karen Opaka-Masser, Cindy Lynn, and Ruthann McCann, anesthetists; Peggy Penny, Marjorie Hunter, Ann Herman, Patricia Harrison, Lesley Amaral, Ellen Cleary, and Nancy Holan, nurses; Patricia Batzdorf, dental technician; Deb Snow, nutrition consultant / aide; Jeff DeKock, photographer/translator
We owe special thanks to Bethany Congregational Church of Foxboro, Massachusetts, which raised funds to help sponsor the team. Church members also collected hundreds of toys for the children of Colombia.
View photos from 2003
“The Power of Healing and the Power of Helping
Early winter 2005 saw an HTC medical team set out for Villavicencio, Colombia, for the 9th time. The teams always do wonderful work there, and their reports are always inspiring.
For Villavicencio 2005 we’re bringing you an account from a unique and revealing point of view. Erik Herman, son of Dr. Larry Herman (veteran of all our Villavicencio trips) accompanied this year’s team as an aide. Read his words and see the work of Healing the Children from a new perspective—just as Erik did.
Team members: Dr. Bruce MacIntosh, Dr. Larry Herman, Dr. Bill Dobbin, Dr Reinaldo Claudio, Dr. Sara Runnels, Dr. Byron Henry, Dr. Jim Bertz, Dr. Roy Hawkinson, Dr. John Stanley, Dr. Martin Ruiz; anesthetists; Steve Cohen, Cis Tighe, Toni Schmittling, Karen Opaka-Masser; nurses Peggy Penny, Marjorie Hunter, Helen Runnels, Shirley Blodgett, Cindy Jones; techs R. J. Stager, Patricia Batzdorf; aides Kurt Herman, Eric Herman; administrator and translator Clemencia Echeverri
“Reflections on a Trip to Colombia.”
Erik Lawrence Herman
I had heard about these trips for years: Ecuador, Nepal, Samoa, Peru, India, Pakistan. My father had traveled the world performing his trade. I had seen the pictures. I had listened to the lectures. I had the trinkets, the t-shirts, the bracelets, the bowls etc. I often talked to friends and acquaintances about these trips as if I had some first hand, expert knowledge. I urged them to go. I said I could help arrange it. I spoke proudly. But I always felt a bit like a fraud. I had never been on a trip. I knew I was as much of an outsider as them. I had been offered the opportunity to go, but I never actualized the opportunity. I always had intentions of going someday. I even pictured it in my head. I tried to envision what it would be like. I tried to picture the people, the countries, everything. But I always found a reason not to go. As the years the passed, more and more people I knew went on trips. My sister went three times, my brother twice. Friends had gone. They all spoke about how amazing the experience was. They spoke about how thankful the parents and children were. They spoke about how skillful and giving the doctors, surgeons and nurses were. They spoke about how beautiful the country was and how much fun they had and how long the days were and how hard they worked. Their collective enthusiasm began to weigh on me until it reached critical mass. I’m not sure what the final motivating factor was. Maybe it was after I began seriously dating a girl of Colombian decent and got to know her family and that allowed me to make a human connection. Whatever it was, I finally made the decision to see for myself what it was I had been hearing so much about for so many years.
One of the major reasons I hesitated going for so long was because it was outside of my comfort zone. Sure, I’ve always loved to travel and see new places and experience new things, but only if it was on my terms. I’ve always chosen the places and traveled at times that worked the best for me. But the Healing the Children trip was entirely different. As my father has said, “You’ll never find the time to go on a trip. You need to make the time.” If I wanted to be part of Healing the Children, I needed to put my motivations and expectations behind that of the group’s. I was also nervous to commit because the work of the group was completely outside the realm of my “field of expertise”. Sure I’ve been “around” medicine and the medical profession my whole life (my father is an oral surgeon and physician, my sister is a nurse, my brother is studying to be an oral surgeon and my girlfriend is also a nurse), but I’ve always worn my detachment from that part of my family as a badge of honor. It’s been a long-running family joke that I get “freaked out” if I’m even in the vicinity of a hospital. I had to overcome feelings that I’d be in the way or somehow screw things up. But what I eventually came to learn was that’s part of what makes these trips so special. These trips are outside of most volunteers’ comfort zones, including the doctors and nurses who spend their everyday lives in hospitals or working in medicine. Colombia can be a dangerous and intimidating place. The South American hospitals can be antiquated and underequiped. The children are in overwhelming need of help. Any one of these reasons could keep someone from going on a trip. Everyone needs to come to terms with these feelings before committing. But the people do come. They come in spite of their fears and apprehensions. And they do great things.
And I saw these great things materialized by my father and Dr. Mac, and Dr. Bertz, and Clemencia, and Peggy. Each member of the group approached their work and the experience with the desire to help as their motivating energy. You need to have this compulsion somewhere inside of you or you won’t even get on the plane. You need to have the confidence that you can make a difference; that your time does amount to a whole lot of good. I don’t know if I knew this before I went, although I certainly hoped I could help in some way. But my primary motivations were self-serving; at least I thought they were. I wanted to travel. I wanted to take pictures in Colombia. I wanted to have an experience that I could write about later, an experience that would make me unique. But it didn’t take long after being in the country for me to realize that the mission of this group was larger than my own motivations. When were greeted at the city hospital in Villavicencio by the throngs of cheering parents and children, I was moved to tears. They were welcoming us like we were liberators, like we were Simon Bolivar himself. It was at that point I realized this trip was not about me and my motivations. It was about the larger good of humans helping humans. It was about the healing spirit that transcends culture and language. Love and human connection transcend culture and language barriers
And ultimately, that’s what the trips are about, “healing the children”. If you’ve never had exposure to clef palates or clef lips, they are physical deformities developed prior to birth. The causes are threefold, environment, nutrition and genetics. The deformities are often grossly disfiguring and result in large gaps inside the mouths and on the faces and lips of the children. In a country like Colombia where so much emphasis is put on physical beauty the children with these deformities are often socially ostracized, let alone under extreme health risks. That’s why the parents go to great lengths (often traveling for days) to bring them to the group. It’s such a remarkable thing to be a part of because your heart initially bleeds for these children. They smile at you almost unaware of their deformity and their innocence just cuts deep. It’s hard not to feel sorry for these children. But to see the children after they’ve had their surgery and their clefts closed up and their smiles re-built, the transformation is nothing short of amazing.
I’ve known for a long time that my father is a talented man. People have told me this. I’ve seen his awards and accolades. I’ve heard stories about the work he does and plans to do. But I’ve never really experienced it first hand, partly because I don’t work in medicine and partly because I’ve intentionally maintained a distance between us. It’s a natural instinct for a son to want to surpass his father and I think if I truly contemplated who my father is and what he’s accomplished it might stifle my desire to surpass him or at least define and achieve my own sense of greatness. But to finally have had the experience of seeing him work in an environment that he so much loves and where his talent and compassion are in full light, was remarkable. I was awestruck by everything from the steadiness of his hands as he made incisions, to the calmness and clarity in the way he taught new surgeons and surgical residents. But even more, I was moved by the way he welcomed me into the Operating Room for my first time. I had never been in full scrubs before and never in an OR. On the first day of surgeries in Villavicencio, one of the nurses saw me awkwardly milling around and fiddling with my camera. She asked me if I would you like to go in and take some pictures. I hesitantly said yes and she led me beyond the heavy metal double doors. I stood motionless for several seconds, truly expecting and fearing I’d see organs and entrails and such. My father looked up and said, “Hey Erik, come on over.” And so I walked over. My father eagerly explained the procedure he was doing. He explained the teqniques he was using. And he didn’t dumb it down. I could see the enjoyment in his eyes at explaining this to me. And I could sense the pride he felt knowing I was enjoying it and that I was learning from it. Not learning how to perform surgery, but learning about the power of healing and the power of helping. He was proud to pass along that energy.
But my father certainly was not the only one passing along the healing energy. I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention the other surgeons such as Doctor Mac and Doctor Bertz, who approached their work with a quiet confidence. It was clear they’d been doing this for years. These men are titans in their fields and it was a unique honor to watch them work. But equally gratifying was being able to share a beer with them at the end of a long day. While their skills and experience could have elevated them to mythic status within the group, they were more inclined to be just one of the group, pitching in. And there affabable nature was a positive motivating force on everyone, but in particular on the new surgeons and residents like Sarah, Byron and my brother Kurt who went along to learn. Their willingness to teach and inspire a younger generation is what will enable this program to continue on for years to come.
We often create false realities in life and convince ourselves of their “truthfulness”. I for one have often convinced myself that I have it hard or my life is so complex and challenging. I’ve convinced myself that I need to focus so much time on myself and making my life better that I definitely don’t have time to help someone else thousands of miles away. And besides, how could I help? I don’t have any relevant or applicable skills. But when you go to a country like Colombia that’s so poor and you see how desperate the people are for help, it wakes you up a bit. Your self-imposed blinders are lifted. Don’t assume you can’t help because something’s outside of your “field of expertise”. Sometimes just being a witness is helping. Sometimes you learn how to help. You become a conduit for the helping spirit. And in the end, the experience makes your life better and enriches you as a person. But you have to go out and search for reality and truths. For me, being part of Healing the Children (even if in a small capacity) was life changing and life affirming. We’re so blessed here in States and I’ve been appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been blessed with, but having the opportunity to give something back and make an actual positive impact on the lives of someone else, is perhaps one of my proudest achievements in life.
View photos from 2005
View the photos from Bucaramanga