Benefactors persevere, aid injured Honduran girl Dentist arranges free scalp operations

December 03, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When east Columbia dentist Dr. Michael Dougherty sets up shop in poverty-stricken Honduras, patients line up to sit in a makeshift dental chair propped up on cinder blocks under the light of a single electric bulb.

Working with international charities, Dougherty and other foreign doctor-volunteers travel to the Central American country to pull teeth and perform routine medical procedures.

But scarce medical supplies and few hospitals make it difficult to deal with more serious problems. So when Dougherty heard last May about a girl who lost a large piece of her scalp in a gory accident, he knew he had to bring her to the United States for treatment.

The resident of Columbia's King's Contrivance village arranged for 10-year-old Diana Guardado to receive about $15,000 worth of free plastic surgery -- likely five operations in all -- through the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

As she sits in Dougherty's house recuperating after her second operation, Diana is calm and quiet -- seemingly oblivious to the reams of bureaucratic red tape and logistical juggling that he tackled to get her and an interpreter into this country.

But she clearly remembers the day last February in her eastern Honduras hometown of Tocoa when she reached over the electric corn grinder her father was using to make flour for tortillas. Her long, dark hair became tangled in the machine.

"I was screaming, 'Mommy, Mommy,' " Diana recalls.

With each turn, the grinder wrenched Diana closer. Desperate to pull her hair free, Diana reached into the grinder and lost a finger. The force of the grinder finally yanked off a 5-inch-square section of Diana's scalp on the right side of her head.

Dougherty, 48, says he can't imagine the pain she suffered.

"Pull five of your hairs out, and it hurts. Pull 40,000 out and your scalp with it," he says. "She's a tough little girl."

Unable to afford medical treatment, Diana's family -- she has 13 brothers and sisters -- rubbed herbs and roots into her scalp to try to cure the wound. But the area became severely infected.

Other children in the 2,000-resident town began to tease her, and her teacher asked her to leave the school because the taunting was so disruptive, Dougherty says.

A Honduran, Jose Guzman, was contacted by Diana's family about a month after the accident. He took her to a hospital in a large city so she could receive antibiotics.

Concerned about Diana's condition, Guzman sent pictures of Diana to Dougherty, whom he had met in Honduras, to see if he could help.

Dougherty lobbied friends at the University of Maryland, where he is an alumnus. Dr. Bradley Robertson, a plastic surgeon who has done foreign volunteer work for more than 15 years, agreed to help Diana if she came to this country.

Dougherty got free airplane tickets for Diana and Guzman's daughter, Kony -- who acts as Diana's interpreter -- from Honduras to Miami from TACA, a Central American airline. Guzman paid for the connecting tickets to Baltimore.

Between treating patients in his office on Cradlerock Way near Columbia's Owen Brown Village Center, Dougherty called the U.S. Embassy in Honduras to arrange for the two visas.

"I thought [getting free treatment from] the hospital was going to be the hard part, but there was so much more to this than I envisioned," Dougherty said.

On Sept. 20, Diana -- who has been living in Dougherty's home since she arrived -- had her first surgery. The process used to treat her is similar to one used to treat burn patients, Robertson said.

He inserted a balloon under Diana's scalp on the left side of her head. The balloon, which is inflated over time by inserting fluid, stretches the tissue on her scalp.

Doctors can then remove scar tissue in the wounded area and pull over the new, healthy tissue.

He says Diana should look normal after her surgeries are completed, possibly by early next year.

Every year, several patients a year from many countries are treated by the University of Maryland Medical Center, says Jill Bloom, a spokeswoman for the hospital. The amount they pay depends on their financial situation.

"They come for just about everything you can imagine," Bloom says.

Dougherty, a 17-year Columbia resident, says his work in Honduras has shown him how fortunate U.S. citizens are. He recalls a story of one woman begging him to extract six infected teeth as he waited for a taxi to take him to the airport to come back to this country.

"I just feel like I've been lucky, and now I can give back to people who don't have nearly as much as Americans have, no matter what," Dougherty says.

The Hondurans "are just very nice people. They deserve help."

In July, he took his son Bryan, 13, with him to Honduras.

"The idea is to show them that 80 percent of the world lives this way, and we are the 1 percent of the world that [is] lucky," Dougherty says.

He tells them, " 'So, when you tell me you didn't get this toy, get a grip.' "

And Diana? Dougherty says she just wants to get home soon -- with a full head of hair.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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