Dr. Corbin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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A Virtuous Act: Dr. Corbin’s charitable journey to India

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I sent my name into Operation Smile in the spring in the hopes of going to Dharamsala, India in Oct. It was going to be Operation Smile's first trip to that area and I wanted to be on that trip.

By the end of the summer I received an Email that the trip had been filled. I was disappointed but looked forward to going to other third world countries in which I might be needed. Then, only three weeks before the eventual trip, I was called by Operation Smile and literally begged to go on short notice as there had been a cancellation by another surgeon.

My wife had already made plans to go to India with friends at the same time so everything fell into place. All I had to do was reschedule my patients and get on my wife's flight schedule that would put her in New Delhi when the rest of the Operation Smile team arrived. When my own patients found out why I wanted to move their surgeries, they all were accommodating so the trip was on.

We flew from LA to Singapore, roughly 15 hours, then from Singapore to New Delhi another 5 hours. We arrived early in the morning where I hooked up with the rest of the Operation Smile team, 40 other MD's, nurses and support staff, and after a short rest in New Delhi traveled 15 hours by bus to Dharamsala arriving very late at night. The trip was exhausting as the roads are twisty, narrow and are poorly paved making the bus feel like a ship lost in a rough sea. Many members of the team immediately got motion sickness. Luckily I was one of those that didn't.

Exhausted from the trip we got up at 6 in the morning so that we could get to a local college/ medial school where the triaging of patients would begin. Patients and their parents traveled from all over India to be seen not knowing whether they would be selected for surgery. They would initially check in and then pass through lines of paper work. They would then be seen by the Plastic Surgeons, and if selected for surgery the Anesthesiologists, the Pediatricians and finally the phlebotomists. 6 Plastic Surgeons, one from India, one from Canada, one from Russia now migrated to the US and 3 from the US, myself included, examined over 350 patients before putting together an operative schedule that would accomplish 150 surgeries. It took us 3 days to screen all these people, 1 day to set up the OR's and 5 days to perform the surgeries. Our mission was first to operate on primary cleft lips and then primary cleft palates. Other deformities could also be treated if there was time and availability. Those children too old to benefit from a cleft palate repair or revision were sent to a dentist, along on the trip from the US, for an obturator to be made to aid speech.

In the evenings after screening or surgery despite the fact the days ran long, we were invited to dinner receptions to be honored by various groups in Dharamsala. Quite frankly I would have preferred to go to the hotel and sleep but we did not wish to disappoint anyone as they were so glad we had come.

The patients we screened ranged in age from a few months old to close to sixty years old. One of those chosen for surgery was a 51 year old woman with an unrepaired cleft lip, another a high school student with a unrepaired bilateral cleft lip and palate. Some of the children and adults had deformities too severe or complicated to be attempted on this trip and some were simply too sick.

Our operating rooms consisted of 2 rooms with 2 operating tables per room and the "closet" that had the fifth operating table. Each day we rotated rooms and one surgeon "floated." Luckily I got to operate everyday.

The hospital was very different from what we think of as hospitals here in the US. It smelled like a public bathroom and had birds flying around the ceilings and the odd monkey running down the halls. Power frequently was lost and at times we had to rely on flash lights. All and all though the people are what made it all worth while. They were so appreciative and so patient with us despite the language barrier and the long waits to be seen and eventually operated on. Many had walked or driven hours and even days just to be seen without a guarantee of surgery. Many were told that they would have to wait for another mission to come but were grateful for being seen and placed on the list. One man drove 13 hours just to be sure we were there and then had to drive back to get his eleven month old son and then return without the knowledge that he would be cleared for surgery. Luckily he did and I had the opportunity to repair his severe bilateral cleft lip.

The trip was humbling for many reasons. Right away from the trip up the mountains to Dharamsala along the winding rough roads, to the narrow poverty congested streets we passed along the way, you realize how much we have to be grateful here in the USA.

To see and treat all of these people most with severe defects which if they had lived in the USA would have been treated when they were far smaller and easy to repair.

And finally to be included with a group of Plastic Surgeons all of whom I felt were excellent and would be honored to have operate on any one of my family members. What an honor to be included amongst this group that must have been Operation Smile's "A" team.

But if this wasn't enough to humble you, the day before we left we had the honor of a private audience with the Dahlia Lama in which he got to know us and we him on a very personal basis. He agreed to meet with us because as he put it he saw in our mission the compassion that had consumed his existence.

He referred to our charitable surgical mission as a virtuous act. Our charitable trip to India is one that I will remember fondly. The deformed children and their parents gratitude is a true reminder of the heart of plastic surgery. As a plastic surgeon the most rewarding aspect of what I do is improve the quality of my patents lives. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.

Frederic H. Corbin M.D.

Dr. Corbin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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