Doctors' trips to Belize a labor of love, charity Facial abnormalities of children repaired free

July 28, 1996|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,SUN STAFF

A tiny boy with black hair and plump cheeks lies sleeping bundled in a blue and white knit wrap, his eyes tightly shut, his small mouth dangling open in the picture Dr. Lee Kleiman took in Belize.

The boy, who is no more than 3 months old, would look like any other child if it weren't for a cleft lip, an abnormality that requires surgery to close a rift between his lip and the roof of his mouth.

In the United States, that might be a relatively simple proposition. But not in Belize, a Central American country between Mexico and Guatemala that is about the size of New Hampshire. The government of Belize controls health care and allows few elective surgeries. Most of its people are too poor to go elsewhere.

But Kleiman, who lives in Glen Burnie, and a group of American doctors are trying to change that with pro bono tours of Belize to perform surgery on children with cleft lips, palates and noses and to teach Belizean doctors those surgical skills.

The congenital defects, which can cause difficulty in eating, breathing and speaking, are treated early in the United States. But they are left largely untreated, doctors said.

Life is made even more difficult for Belizean children who have clefts because many people there associate the the abnormalities with evil spirits, doctors said.

"A lot of time, the children are abandoned," Dr. Felix Cob, who practices in Belize City, said in a telephone interview. "They might be malnourished. Some parents feel it's best if the child dies.

"It really helps us when the teams come down , said Cob, who practices medicine in a 175-bed hospital. "It changes the lives of the children and the families."

The American doctors take a week of unpaid leave to work with Cob and others at the hospital. The volunteers spend about $2,000 each for airplane fares and the cost of shipping supplies -- sutures, dressings, medicines -- donated by hospitals, said Kleiman. He became interested in helping the children about two years ago after a missionary brought a girl who had fine brown hair and big eyes from Belize to Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore to have cleft lip and palate surgery.

The hospital provided free care and Kleiman donated his services. The operation was a success.

But when Kleiman learned that the trip and hospital services would have cost the family $50,000, if they had to pay, he decided there had to be a better way to help more Belizean children. He would go to them.

He recruited a few doctors to help and after making arrangements with physicians in Belize, the first pro bono tour began in January 1995.

Kleiman and his colleagues have performed 25 operations in two trips to Belize, mostly on children ages 3 months to 13 years, Cob said. The doctors plan another trip in January.

Kleiman, who practices at hospitals in Baltimore and Glen Burnie and owns a private practice, said most of the children "are scared when they first see you."

They may not be very old, but they "know they have a problem when they look at their parents or siblings," he said.

"They know they are different."

But after the operations, the children greet the doctors with a smile. "The kids can look into a mirror and see themselves back together," Kleiman said.

Cob said he used to become depressed because he couldn't help the children under the government system. Worse, they "kept coming and coming," he said. "And now we have these guys."

Jonathan M. Sykes, an assistant professor of otolaryngology [the branch of medicine dealing with disorders of the ear, nose and throat] and facial and plastic surgery at the University of California-Davis, said the trips "enable us to help people in the purest form. We're doing good for the sake of doing good."

Sykes has made about 20 similar trips to Russia, the Philippines, Honduras and Ecuador.

The only drawback, he said, is that "you don't get to watch the kids grow up. But you know you've improved someone's life."

Dr. John Gordon, an anesthesiologist who practices at North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie and hospitals in Baltimore, said the trips are part of his duty.

"I happen to be a Christian, and I believe we should do anything we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves," he said.

He and his colleagues, accustomed to state-of-the-art equipment the United States, said they find it a challenge to make do with less in Belize.

"You deal. You say, 'How do we get out of this situation?' " said Kleiman. "It makes you more appreciative of coming back here and how lucky you are to be in this system because they deal with so much less down there."

To help the doctors with their project, call Kleiman at 768-2678.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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