YARMOUTH — Dr. Gary Howard, a dentist and member of Rotary, will leave for Mexico Jan. 15 to participate in his second mission to provide corrective surgeries and restorative operations for hundreds of children and adults.
Howard will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a 10-day mission to treat burn victims and patients with cleft lips and palates. The trip is sponsored by Rotaplast, an independent organization supported by Rotary International, that provides medical services, cultural exchange and humanitarian efforts to 18 countries. There are 15 missions per year, which can cost up to $55,000 a trip.
“These trips are amazing,” Howard said. “Helping people to feel normal, to feel comfortable, is a powerful, emotional experience. It makes you feel so good to be able to help in this way.”
Howard has been a Rotary member for 13 years. He is the owner of Cumberland Dental Arts, and said he did not participate in the mission to Peru in 2007 as a dentist – he paid his own way as a volunteer. This time, Howard is part of the medical team.
“We will work about 12 hours per day and do the best we can for the patients,” he said. “There is a lot of cooperation, good will and interaction on these trips.”
In addition to the team of 30 volunteers who participate in the Rotaplast missions each year, there are also speech pathologists, geneticists, oral pathologists, interpreters and social workers present.
Yarmouth resident Rosemarie Powers, a nurse at Maine Medical Center, traveled to Cumana, Venezuela, in 2006 with fellow Rotarians. She said although she had experience as a recovery room nurse, she, too, went as a volunteer.
“It is amazing to see the difference in health care from here to a Third World country,” she said. “We brought in everything we needed.”
Powers said they had to provide sheets for the hospital beds, and soap and toilet paper daily. All the equipment and medication they needed had to be brought from the United States.
“If it wasn’t tied down, it was stolen,” Powers said. “We don’t realize how fortunate we are here.”
Powers said the doctors performed about 85 surgeries on children and adults with cleft palates and lips. She said they helped to improve the lives of many people.
“It was such a worthwhile thing to do,” she said. “Would I do it again? Absolutely.”
Yarmouth resident Peter Johnson said his trip to Venezuela in 2006 was inspirational, but one trip was enough for the 57-year-old UBS employee. He said he has incredible respect for the people who give of themselves to help the children and adults in need.
“What three surgeons in three operating rooms could do with limited tools in those conditions was unbelievable,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who started the Yarmouth Rotary chapter in 1996, said he was the operating room orderly during his time in Venezuela. He said he helped transport patients to and from the room in old, broken-down gurneys and was on “fly-catching duty.”
He said the conditions were extremely difficult, and there was no air conditioning, no privacy and frequent power outages.
“Everyone should do one of these trips to see what is out there,” Johnson said. “As an American we should have incredible appreciation for what we have, and be incredibly embarrassed for how we take it all for granted. We don’t celebrate all that we have right here.”
Johnson said he is particularly impressed by the fact that fellow Yarmouth residents would not have known about the opportunity to go on the Rotaplast missions if not for the Rotary.
Perhaps one of the most inspired Yarmouth Rotarians is Bill Dunn. He was introduced to the Rotaplast missions in 2000 at a Rotary breakfast meeting, and has been on four trips since 2002, two to Venezuela and two to Peru. He went from an equipment sterilizer on the first trip in 2002, to the assistant mission director by 2008.
As a consultant in the electrical power industry, Dunn said he often traveled to developing countries, but wanted to help people in a more direct way than offering them electrical services.
“These missions produce immediate psychological rewards,” he said. “And at 60 years old, I decided what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Dunn is taking online courses from the Maine Medical School of Surgical Technology, and will apply to the University of Southern Maine’s accelerated nursing program in October.
“I know that going on those missions has moved me,” he said. “Next time I go, I hope to be in the operating room as part of the medical team.”
Howard said the opportunity to help people from 2 months old to 52 years old has meant a lot to him. He said beyond providing corrective surgeries for cleft lips and palates, doctors perform eye surgeries, skin grafts and operations for webbed hands and feet and other deformities.
“This is a fantastic program and I am thrilled to be able to participate again,” he said.
As a member of the Yarmouth Rotary club, Dr. Gary Howard, right, will take his second trip to help children and adults with cleft lips and palates, burns and other disfiguring conditions. Howard will be in Oaxaca, Mexico, for 10 days with other volunteer dentists, surgeons, interpreters and speech therapists.