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Dr. Dan Pyo's Story

Dr. Dan Pyo: Inspired to help children

Dr. Daniel Pyo, a plastic surgeon from New Jersey, still has a framed photo on his desk of the twins he operated on during his first medical mission with Operation Smile.

He recalls the story of a grandmother in Brazil who walked through the jungle for eight days with her twin grandchildren to bring them to the Operation Smile medical mission. Their father had rejected the twins, saying there was a curse on them, that a bad spirit had possessed the twins, causing their cleft lip and cleft palate.

“We were able to give the twins surgery on their cleft lip, and the next year they came all the way back for surgery on their cleft palate,” Pyo said. “This time their father came with them. Once he saw this organization could help his children, he allowed them back into the home. He accepted them.”

Pyo looks at that picture daily in his office, the picture that reminds him of the moment that started his journey volunteering on surgical missions with Operation Smile. 

Now, after 10 medical missions across the globe, Pyo says the same thing keeps him coming back to help more children. “With my small skills, surgery does so much more than just change that one child, it changes the family, the whole community. It brings a sense of understanding to a family that may have no idea why their child was born that way. When we show them it’s not a curse, it’s not something evil, you see how it changes everyone.” 

“With my small skills, surgery does so much more than just change that one child, it changes the family, the whole community. It brings a sense of understanding to a family that may have no idea why their child was born that way," Pyo said.

“You’re doing just one little thing to help these kids, these families,” Pyo said. “But they go home and they have so much more to overcome in many cases. But at least they don’t have to worry about their facial deformity being one of those.”

We sat down with Dr. Pyo for a question and answer-style interview. Read on for more about why Dr. Pyo got involved with Operation Smile and an impactful small-world moment.  

What inspired you to volunteer for Operation Smile?  
Not to sound like a commercial, but Operation Smile is the very best organization that I have ever worked with because of the focus on safety, outcomes and credentialing. We treat the patients with the highest standards, just as if we were in the best hospitals in the U.S. There is no other organization with Operation Smile’s standards. Our Global Standards of Care are the model, just like what we do at home. I wouldn’t do any surgery on a mission that I wouldn’t do at home. 

The other reason I choose to volunteer with Operation Smile is the support I receive from my family. Both my sons are active in fundraising for Operation Smile, from birthday party fundraising drives, to violin recitals, art exhibitions and car washes. I wouldn’t be able to go on medical missions without the support of my family and their willingness to give up time with their dad so I can help children who need it most. 

Why do you keep coming back for more?
Because there is more work to do. I foresee continuing my involvement with Operation Smile until I cannot continue to perform safe surgery with excellent outcomes. I am always encouraging my colleagues, especially my younger colleagues, to get involved with this life-changing organization. I show them that it is possible to volunteer on missions despite the challenge of building and maintaining a medical practice. I believe it is imperative to instill in our younger surgeons the desire to help our children around the world.   

Do you have a particularly memorable story of a child you’ve helped?
In particular, there was a child that I took care of on my last medical mission to Honduras. He was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. What was interesting was that my younger son Michael had a friend in is class who was from Honduras. When he started school in the fall, his friend said that she had recently returned from Honduras where she has some relatives. She said she has a cousin who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, but when she saw him over that summer, her cousin’s cleft lip was repaired.  When she asked what happened, she was told that a team from Operation Smile came to help her cousin and the surgeon was from New Jersey, a Dr. Pyo. When Michael realized that his father had repaired his friend’s cousin’s lip he was amazed and said he was so proud of his father. 

When you get back from a medical mission, what do you tell your friends/family/colleagues about your experience?
Because I have been on so many medical missions, most of my friends, family and colleagues know when it is time for my next one. My patients also know about my work with Operation Smile and are extremely supportive and often want to donate to the organization. It really excites and inspires all those around me when they know that I am preparing for my upcoming medical mission.  

After I get back, everyone is eager to hear about my experience. I will take a lot of photos and will have many stories about the children and families that I can share with all those around me. The most important thing that I usually tell people is how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to experience loving and caring for others. Whatever difficulties that we all experience in our lives pales in comparison to what many of these children and families experience by being born with a cleft, and not having the means to have it repaired. 

The pain and desperation that these parents must feel has to be unbearable. The small sacrifice that I make to go and take care of these children is priceless. Many of my friends/family/colleagues and patients want a sneak peek into what a mission is all about. So I typically put together a small PowerPoint presentation giving them a glimpse into what a mission looks like. They really appreciate the peek into the life of a mission. This goes a long way into putting this issue into their hearts, and pays big dividends down the road.