Mending Faces, Changing Lives.
Through rugged terrain along dusty roads high in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Northern Mexico, mothers walk for miles on a journey of hope. They make the trek to Guerrero, a town located in the foothills of the mountains, to find the doctor who offers help for their children born with severe, disabling facial deformities.
The doctors they seek are board-certified, Houston plastic surgeons R. Scott Yarish and Dr. Erica Bartlett, who are very well-known for their humanitarian efforts. Dr. Yarish and Dr. Bartlett lead the Crystal Foundation, an organization that provides reconstructive surgery to children with disabling deformities and no means of medical care. A large part of the Crystal Foundation’s efforts is focused on the clinic that Yarish started in Guerrero, Mexico in 1989. The clinic provides state-of-the-art reconstructive surgery for children suffering from congenital deformities such as cleft lips, cleft palates, congenital hand anomalies, as well as burn injuries. With modern surgical techniques, Yarish and team repair and restore the lives of these children--the miracle their parents seek and could never find, let alone afford.
These days, the dedicated team even provides transportation for most patients who live in the rural regions of the area surrounding his clinic. But, it wasn’t always like that. In the early days, patients and their families had to provide their own transportation to the clinic, which frequently meant walking as far as 60 miles. “When we started the clinic, the whole town would show up to support us,” says Yarish. “We stayed in people’s homes; they’d cook our meals. The church would provide dormitories for our patients and families.”
Back then, the clinic had very primitive operative facilities. They worked from dawn until midnight, and when they lost electricity, they worked by flashlight. For the first two years, the clinic operated in a school kitchen. Once, they had to wait for the school staff to finish making breakfast before they could clean and sterilize the makeshift operating room. “We used apple crates stacked in rows and covered with blankets as an operating table and lamps with 60-watt bulbs for operating lights.”
With time and unlimited energy invested by doctors and an army of volunteers, much has changed. The clinic has a manager who organizes transportation for patients up to 100 miles away. Their reach extends beyond the town of Guerrero, treating patients referred by plastic surgeons in larger cities. The town leaders of many surrounding communities send their patients by bus after being prepped for their surgery by local physicians. Rotary International, along with several Houston and other Rotary Clubs, built a large clinical facility with the help of business leaders from the state of Chihuahua. “We now have state-of-the-art operating rooms with modern instruments and anesthesia,” says Yarish. “And, we have backup generators in the event of power loss.”
During the past 17 years, Dr. Yarish and his medical team have made around 35 mission trips to rural Mexico to perform life-changing surgery for children. They typically perform over 50 surgeries each trip and work up to 20 hours a day. Cleft lip and palate anomalies have robbed their young patients of the chance to smile, whistle, or have their words understood. These congenital anomalies are particularly common in the mountainous, and rural areas of Mexico, and it is difficult for the Mexican government to take care of all the affected children. The surgery allows children to breathe, speak, hear, and swallow correctly. They’re saved from malnutrition and lifelong disabilities. Just as profound, the outward results of the surgery translate into self-esteem and protect children from isolation, exclusion, and embarrassment caused by their physical appearance.
Both surgeons say they feel like “lifesavers” and are often overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotions and tears of joy following a successful operation. When they started their mission trips, children were often brought to the clinic and left with instructions to wait while their parents went to work. “We would sometimes finish operating late at night only to find a child who had been sitting in the waiting room for hours,” explains Yarish. “But we always put our exhaustion aside. If we could take care of one more child, we just did it.”