Over the last 16 years, William (Jay) G. Austen, Jr., MD, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Burn Surgery, and a team of about 20 MGH surgeons, anesthesiologists, residents, recovery room technicians and operating room nurses, have treated hundreds of patients in Colombia — and changed their lives forever.
In an auction at last October’s Storybook Ball, the annual fundraising event that raised more than $1.8 million to support MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), donor Tangley Lloyd won the chance to accompany Dr. Austen and his team on this year’s trip, which she described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Beacon Hill resident Paula O’Keeffe, an MGH volunteer, also accompanied Dr. Austen and his team. O’Keeffe noted how fascinating it was to be able to watch them perform the surgeries. “It was incredible to see them just fix the cleft lips – suddenly the lip would go back to normal,” she recalls. “It was an amazing, special trip.”
Along with their medical expertise, Dr. Austen and his team bring their own equipment because that technology is unavailable in Colombia at the free care children’s hospital, Casa del Ninos.
“As soon as we arrive, we set up shop,” Dr. Austen explains. “They give us one operating room to use, which we divide into two separate ORs, and then we set up recovery rooms and all of our equipment. Basically, we create our own hospital within a hospital.”
In 10 days, they tirelessly perform more than 60 surgical operations and see roughly 150 children for follow-up visits to make sure they’re healing properly.
“We operate primarily on children with deformities like cleft lip and palate, burns, traumatic injuries and congenital deformities,” Dr. Austen says. “The people we serve on these missions are the poorest of the poor. Many of the families live in the jungle in between Venezuela and Colombia. Even if they could afford medical care, they wouldn’t have access to it.”
Teaching is also an important part of what Dr. Austen’s team does in Colombia. They work with local surgeons and health professionals to teach proper technique. “Our hope is that the health professionals we teach will go on to teach other local clinicians,” Dr. Austen says.
This year’s Storybook Ball on October 17 will put the spotlight on advances being made every day at MGHfC to treat complex conditions that affect a child’s developing brain. Since 2000, the Storybook Ball has raised more than $22 million for research initiatives and patient care programs at MGHfC. For tickets and more information, visit storybookballboston.org.