When surgeon Daniel Laughlin saw the tiny advertisement in a professional journal calling for volunteers to go to war-torn Croatia and Bosnia, he thought it might be worth checking into.
Nine days later, he and partner Dr. John L. LeRoy Jr., who share a plastic surgery practice in Arnold, found themselves in a state-run hospital in Split, Croatia, operating on injured Croats and teaching Croatian doctors new techniques to save limbs.
"It was fairly impulsive," said Dr. Laughlin, back in his office in the Chesapeake Medical Center on Ritchie Highway. "But it was a remarkable experience. It was very satisfying to be able to give help to so many people who had been hurt so badly."
From Feb. 19 to March 5, the doctors performed a dozen operations, including complicated microsurgeries to save arms and legs. They taught local surgeons how to perform the operations using a "team approach," in which several surgeons work on a patient at the same time.
"They had done this surgery before, but it took about 13 hours," said Dr. Laughlin. That was far too long for the limited medical resources available, especially anesthesia, he said. Because of those difficulties, doctors frequently amputated the limbs of patients with serious injuries, he added.
Using some of those techniques, Croatian doctors now can perform microsurgery more successfully in less than half the time, a fact confirmed by Dr. Ivan Ljubic, a surgeon from Split who happened to call his American colleagues during an interview yesterday.
"Yes, yes, they were a great help to us," Dr. Ljubic said. "They taught us a lot of new things."
Although most of their patients were soldiers, the doctors also operated on civilians, like the 6-year-old boy run over by a United Nations truck near a refugee camp. Local doctors initially planned to amputate the boy's leg, but postponed the operation for three weeks, despite the boy's gaping wounds, when they learned the American doctors were on their way.
Using microsurgery techniques, Dr. Laughlin and Dr. LeRoy saved the boy's leg. "He should get good functioning out of it," said Dr. Laughlin, proudly displaying snapshots of the youngster as well as some of his other patients.
The doctors made the trip with the help of "Operation Second Chance," a program organized by Los Angeles resident Sonja Hagel to take American doctors into the former Yugoslavia.
Although the doctors spent about $4,000 to make the trip and estimate they may have lost up to $10,000 in business because they closed their practice for two weeks, they are already talking about going back. "I think we'll definitely be back within a year," said Dr. Laughlin, adding that he would continue to collect supplies for doctors there in the meantime.
The Croatian hospitals are functional, albeit antiquated, but they lack medical supplies, he explained. Dr. Laughlin and Dr. LeRoy gathered $20,000 in donated supplies from local physicians and pharmaceutical companies, which Delta and Croatian airlines shipped free.
Anyone interested in donating supplies for future shipments should contact Dr. Laughlin or Dr. LeRoy at 544-0707.