Q&A with Dr. Kevin Calder
As a plastic surgeon and a long-time Operation Smile volunteer, Dr. Calder has performed life-changing surgeries on hundreds of children around the world — children from villages so impoverished that he's the first doctor they've ever met.
We recently sat down with Dr. Calder and asked him about his experiences with Operation Smile. Read on to learn more about a day in the life of an Operation Smile volunteer plastic surgeon, and a few of the boys and girls who have made a lasting impact on his life.
Q: What inspired you to first get involved with Operation Smile?
Dr. Calder: One of the surgeons who trained me in medical school was a long-term volunteer with Operation Smile. When I first met him, he had a book on his coffee table in the waiting room about the World Journey of Smiles, which was a 10-day effort to treat more than 4,000 children with cleft in celebration of Operation Smile’s 25th anniversary. I flipped through the book and I was just amazed at the dramatic difference that Operation Smile makes in patient's lives by providing this surgery. This pre-eminent surgeon was taking time off from his life, paying his staff while he's gone, all to work with an organization that gives a huge gift to these children who need help. I was very interested, and after 3 years of training, I had the chance to go to India to participate in a medical mission. It was an incredible experience. It really changes you — when you come back, you view your world differently.
Q: You were recently part of a medical mission to Chinandega, Nicaragua with Operation Smile. What did you do there?
Dr. Calder: First I helped evaluate all the patients as they came in. We perform general medical evaluations for every patient who shows up. Some of them have never even seen a doctor in their lives — but during our screening process, children see a number of doctors, nurses, even dentists. It's my job to diagnose their specific condition, and prioritize where they should be in the surgery schedule. Once the surgeries start, we're working every day from 8:30 in the morning until 9:00 at night, making sure we can provide safe, quality surgeries to as many children as humanly possible.
Q: What is it like to be there at the medical mission site as families start to arrive?
Dr. Calder: At first it's very exciting — but it shortly becomes very overwhelming, very chaotic. You're trying to communicate in a foreign language with translators, trying to make sure the patients and families understand their situation, how we can help, or if we can't help them. At the same time, it's very gratifying. You meet so many children who you know are going to get help in just a few days — and it’s an opportunity they would never have, if the medical mission wasn’t there.
Q: One of the most difficult realities about a medical mission is that not every child who comes for help can undergo surgery at that time. How do you feel when you have to turn a child away from a medical mission?
Dr. Calder: It's heartbreaking. But even when a child can’t get surgery at that particular mission, we take extra time with a translator to explain to their mother why that is, and we find ways to still help those children. In Nicaragua I met a boy, about 6 years old, who had never spoken before — not due to a cleft palate, but because he had developmental problems. While we couldn’t give him surgery, our speech pathologist did a full speech evaluation with him and worked on ways he could communicate with his family nonverbally. I was really thankful that we were still able to change his life in some way that day, even if he couldn’t get surgery — and that’s what we aim to do for all the children who come to us.
Q: Oftentimes, a child will not be chosen for surgery because they are malnourished and not strong enough to undergo surgery. How can you tell when a child is severely malnourished?
Dr. Calder: That's a good question. We take height and weight measurements, and compare them against clinical guidelines to determine if a child is healthy enough to safely receive surgery. But for extremely malnourished children, the signs are visible. Their hair is discolored, very light or fine. Their skin can have a different texture — dry and flaky — and their legs and arms are almost stick-like. They’re visibly tired and sluggish. Thankfully, even if a child is not able to have surgery, our volunteers can work with the families to help them learn how to feed properly, get access to formula, and talk about clean, safe water. And we always tell them to come back to the next medical mission so we can hopefully provide surgery then.
Q: How has volunteering with Operation Smile changed you as a person?
Dr. Calder: It's made me more generous...less concerned about personal problems. It's given me the desire to help more people, and continue to work with Operation Smile. Whenever we go on these missions, we take back just as much as we give. We learn so much from the people we meet — they help us as much as we help them.
Q: You've been on many medical missions with Operation Smile. Are there any experiences in particular that have really stuck with you?
Dr. Calder: There's a girl named Pooja from India — I've operated on her on two separate medical missions. Her deformity actually wasn't a cleft — it was a large mole over half of her face. She was so ashamed of her appearance that she dropped out of school in fifth grade, and tried to burn the mole off of her face with a home remedy. She had terrible scarring, so I had the opportunity to help reconstruct her face. I'm planning on helping bring her to Canada for one more surgery she needs, but even now it's amazing to see how her confidence has changed. She's gone back to school, and now that she's older, she's thinking about boys, getting married. It's amazing to be able to keep in touch with patients like Pooja, and see how they grow and change.
Q: As a volunteer plastic surgeon, how do you feel while providing a surgery, and after a surgery?
Dr. Calder: I'm a detail-oriented person, so the thing I love about surgery is that I can focus on just one child. I don't have to worry about logistics, or the long line of patients waiting for our help — I can just dive into the details of the surgery itself, and focus on making that child as beautiful as possible. It's so moving to carry a patient out to their mother after surgery, and see how overwhelmed with joy she is to see her baby’s new smile. When I visit the post-op ward later in the day, and see so many overjoyed families, so many smiles — I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that. But I'm actually jealous of my colleagues who get to stay and chat with the families, and get to know them personally — I'm usually pulled away to the next surgery!
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