Operation Smile funds surgeries for children Global nonprofit group screens poor patients

November 08, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Five-year-old Marquis Ray seems normal -- except for his ears.

They jut out from his head at a sharp angle, causing people to stare, laugh and call him "elephant ears," says his mother, Lisa Muse, a Baltimore cafeteria worker. "A lot of people -- adults and kids -- tease him."

It is a cosmetic problem, one for which she could not afford to seek help -- until yesterday, when a nonprofit humanitarian organization, Operation Smile, which provides free medical care to indigent children with facial and hand deformities, held its first clinic in Baltimore.

Doctors at the clinic were screening children for a program to start in January called World Journey of Hope, in which Operation Smile volunteers will treat 5,000 children in 19 countries, including 200 in the United States.

Muse said she heard about Operation Smile from a nurse at her son's school. Marquis was one of five children brought by parents to the three-hour clinic screening at the UniversityCare medical center in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village Shopping Center.

"We were disappointed only five people came," said Donna L. Dolch, administrator for the Greater Baltimore chapter of Operation Smile. "We were hoping to get at least 25."

Linda M. Ryan, vice chairwoman of the Baltimore chapter, said Operation Smile will help all five.

The others were a 5-month-old girl with a wart-sized skin tag growing from her left ear, a 1-year-old girl with a possible cleft palate who has no appetite, an 8-year-old boy with a pea-sized tumor on his cheek, and a 15-year-old girl with a slight facial deformity and a hormonal imbalance that might be related.

Dorothy Smith of Parkville, the mother of 5-month-old Cheyenne Ellis, said she came to the clinic because people stare at her daughter's ear and she worried it would hurt Cheyenne's feelings.

"I've had too many people come up to me and say, 'What's wrong with her ear?' " Smith said. "I had her ears pierced to take attention away from it, but I think that attracts attention even more."

Smith, who described herself as a "full-time mom," said her insurance company told her it would not pay for an operation because the problem was "cosmetic." She said anesthesia alone would cost "almost $1,000" -- more than she can afford.

"I don't want something wrong with this beautiful baby," she said.

Since Operation Smile started in 1982, the Norfolk, Va.-based organization says, it has treated more than 45,000 children and young adults around the world. It has an operating budget this year of $67 million. The group is funded by donations and grants, Dolch said.

The children screened yesterday were far outnumbered by the staff -- which included three geneticists; two plastic surgeons; two pediatricians; one ear, nose and throat specialist; one anesthesiologist; and one dentist. Three nurses and about 10 medical students also were there.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Terri Hill of Mercy Medical Center said Operation Smile could easily help Marquis. After measuring his ears -- a difficult task, because the child does not like his ears touched -- she explained the operation to him and his mother.

"You would go to sleep, and when you woke up your ears would HTC be back and you'd have a big bandage on your head," Hill said. "They'll be a lot closer to what everyone else has and that's the purpose of it."

Charletta Knight, an office manager in Hill's office who volunteered yesterday, said she and Hill recently returned from a 12-day Operation Smile trip to Venezuela, where 200 procedures were performed on 157 children. She said the experience changed her life.

"You walk down the halls and you are God to the people," she said.

Yesterday's clinic was a lot less dramatic, she said, but she still felt good about it.

"If we get one child out of the day and are able to help this child, it's a success," she said. "It's not the numbers."

Operation Smile, which operates locally from an office at 100 N. Charles St., welcomes inquiries and can be reached by telephone at 410-244-8072.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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