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Ambassadors of promise

Article-Ambassadors of promise

Dr. Thomas G. Crabtree
Winter mornings are beautiful in Vietnam. I am here working on a public health project in support of the region's militaries. As I walk the streets of Hanoi, I notice a bunch of kids and a few adults crowd the entrance of one of the city's newer private hospitals. The children and some of the adults quite obviously suffer from various unrepaired clefts. I can't translate the colorful banner hammocked across the entrance, but later learn it reads "Charity Month Program for Children with Clefts." The plastic surgeon I eventually spoke with said his hospital does these charity projects every few months. The various disciplines rotate. Trouble is, he and the other plastic surgery-trained staff are asked to participate in nearly every one — even those without a plastic surgery focus.

Seems the hospital administrators there have discovered a truth we all know too well. Plastic surgeons can do a little bit of everything and a lot of many things. We are truly the utility fielders of the surgical arts.

In my 20 years of worldwide practice, this is nowhere more apparent than in humanitarian work and disaster relief efforts. This maxim may be considered either a blessing or a curse. I invite you to think of it as a blessing. Recognize your talents as such. Make a decision to offer those skills in some nontraditional forum. Hunt down an opportunity to serve. And, apologies to Nike, "Just Do It."

INVALUABLE EXPERTISE There are countless opportunities ranging from small, hometown-focused work to global service with large international organizations. Most of you are familiar with a number of them. Many of you already volunteer. Some of you have made it your life's work. All of us need to volunteer our surgical handicraft at some point. Not to do so means that somewhere, someone suffers a little bit more or a little bit longer than necessary.

If your practice profile is principally cosmetic, you may feel your cleft repair skills are a bit rusty or your burn care techniques not state-of-the-art. Doesn't matter. As a plastic surgeon, you will always be expert with wounds. And wounds, both chronic and acute, comprise the bulk of the global surgical burden of disease. You can get refresher training in the others if you wish. Until then, never forget that you are invaluable to these organizations if only for your wound expertise. Whether you help with a hometown diabetic who could just use some extra leg ulcer attention, or a tsunami victim with an acute injury, your practiced hand is priceless.

PORTEND HOPE We do this to help our fellow man of course. But do you realize your actions — particularly those done on the other side of the world — may actually help your family and friends here?

Can our work have an impact beyond the individual patient? Can we positively influence populations in crisis and regions in turmoil? In a small but compounding way, I am convinced we can. Our work as healthcare providers — and especially as surgeons — portends hope. Indeed, as volunteers in these humanitarian efforts, you are ambassadors of promise. Your work, which many are now calling medical diplomacy, offers a message that hate, ideology and conflict have a hard time competing against. It is not too far a stretch to say your work tomorrow may resonate for 30 or more years — say, just in time for your sons and daughters to visit. And, because of your work, they may then be treated as honored guests instead of as unwelcome intruders.

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