MARCH 2011

Reza Jarrahy, M.D.

UCLA Surgeon Gives Smiles to Guatemalan Children

On a recent volunteer trip to perform surgery in Guatemala, UCLA craniofacial surgeon Reza Jarrahy, M.D., operated on about 30 children with cleft lips and palates in one week—as many as he typically does in a year at UCLA.

“It’s exhausting, because the schedule is so condensed,” Dr. Jarrahy says, “but the medical personnel who volunteer are so enthusiastic that, in reality, the week flies by and you don’t even notice how tired you are.”

Dr. Jarrahy, a surgeon for the internationally recognized Craniofacial Clinic at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, says he “got the bug” for this kind of work as a surgical resident at UC San Diego when he volunteered to serve as an assistant surgeon during a trip to Guatemala.

Dr. Jarrahy now makes a point of traveling to Central and South America at least two or three times a year — supported in part by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. In the past 10 years, he has performed free operations on approximately 200 children in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil and Peru. Depending on the location, he has found himself operating in well-outfitted local hospitals, where he can work collaboratively with local surgeons, or in makeshift facilities — such as military barracks — where his team has to bring in all the supplies necessary to perform these operations.

The volunteer work “really reminds me of why I chose to go into surgery and why I have focused on this particular subspecialty of plastic surgery,” Dr. Jarrahy says. “In a Third-World setting, the delivery of healthcare is so much more pure, direct and impactful for all involved.”

About one in 500 babies in the United States is born with a cleft lip or palate, congenital deformities that can cause aesthetic and functional defects of the lips, nose and palate. Babies born with cleft lips in the United States usually undergo repair surgery by three months of age. But in other parts of the world, children often live with the deformity for several years without treatment.

“The parents tell us it’s very difficult for their kids who have these obvious deformities of the face,” Dr. Jarrahy says. “As they get older, these children are typically shunned by other kids in the neighborhood or at school because of the way they look.”

On a typical trip, Dr. Jarrahy and the team he is working with will spend the first day screening patients who may need surgery. Patients who are ill or who have other medical considerations that would make surgery unsafe are turned away but invited to come back for future evaluation. Over the next five days, surgeons will work 10 to 12 hours a day to operate on as many as 80 patients.

On his most recent trip to Guatemala, Dr. Jarrahy also took part in a stove-building project before beginning with patient care. Open fires used for cooking and heating cause nearly two million premature deaths in the third world every year, and are a focus of the United Nations, U. S. State Department, and World Health Organization. “The opportunity to go into people’s homes and see their living conditions — and help improve those conditions — was not only a tremendously rewarding experience, but it also gave me a perspective on these families that has improved my ability to take care of them as a physician,” Dr. Jarrahy comments.

Some of the patients and families that Dr. Jarrahy treats return later for followup care and to thank the surgeons for the help, Dr. Jarrahy says. The parents of one 4-year-old boy he operated on last year came back to the hospital last month to give Dr. Jarrahy a ceramic pot.

“It was really touching that they wanted to give me a gift, especially knowing this family came from such limited means,” Dr. Jarrahy says. “I was just grateful they felt so happy with the result and the safety and level of care the team provided.”