Best Face Forward: Part II
Drs. Wendell Smoot and Steven Cohen rebuild futures for underprivileged kids with physical deformities
The scene is worlds away from the privileged shores of La Jolla, where Dr. Wendell Smoot runs a thriving plastic surgery practice with his brother, John, also a gifted plastic surgeon: In a poor, remote Mexican village, a crowd of 300 gathers under a hot sun. Some of them, barefoot and exhausted, have walked through the night to join the assembly. They wait in eager anticipation of Smoot and a team of medical volunteers who have come to operate on children with congenital and acquired deformities, conditions like cleft lip and cleft palate. Smoot surveys the crowd and selects the children on the basis of immediate need. The others will have to join a wait list for his next trip.
A founding member of Interface—a volunteer organization that assembles teams of plastic surgeons, maxillofacial surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, dentists, speech pathologists, nutritionists and translators for medical expeditions serving underprivileged children—Smoot has made countless trips to Mexico (La Paz, La Piedad, Mexicali, Yucatán) in his 30 years of volunteer missions. During a typical trip, which lasts three to five days, Smoot and his team will operate from early morning until late into the evening. “On a five-day trip, we can do 90 to 100 cases,” he says.
Here, the first-class surgical environment Smoot and his colleagues are accustomed to is replaced by “third-world, Spartan-like conditions,” he says, likening the operating room to a M.A.S.H. unit. A less-than-sterile environment is a concern, and the volunteers don’t have the luxury of air-conditioned operating rooms. “But,” says Smoot, “we’ve done this so often, we know how to make things run smoothly.” He takes on cases that don’t have a high risk of complications, and he partners with local physicians so his patients receive follow-up care after he leaves.
A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Utah School of Medicine, Smoot became fascinated by plastic surgery and its transformative power, especially as it relates to correcting physical deformities. “In my training I was lucky to get exposure to cleft lip and palate surgery from two mentors who invented a lot of the procedures and were unbelievably good at training us students,” he says. He started his plastic surgery practice in San Diego in 1979 and has been voted onto this magazine’s Top Doctors list by his peers for the past five years.
Smoot says his role with Interface is “a dream come true,” because it gives him “a balance to appreciate what’s really important in life.” And while he finds the cosmetic surgery work “stimulating”—and it does pay the bills, he notes—the reconstructive surgery is most personally gratifying and “the reason why most [medical students] go into plastic surgery.” Oftentimes, UCSD medical residents accompany Smoot and his team on an expedition as a learning exercise.
“We do this because we love to do it—we don’t get any remuneration except the satisfaction of doing it,” says Smoot. Interface volunteers rely entirely on the generosity of donors to finance transportation and medical supplies. “We need $120,000 to $150,000 annually to make these trips,” he says. “We need people to know we exist, because the more money we have, the more trips we can make.” Upcoming trips are scheduled for October, November, February and May.
Another prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Steven Cohen, performs pro bono reconstructive plastic surgery on kids with facial deformities without leaving San Diego soil. Through his decade-long affiliation with Carlsbad-based Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, Cohen has volunteered his time and an expertise that’s earned him international renown.
After graduating from the George Washington University School of Medicine in 1980, Cohen had plans of becoming a heart surgeon—until a PBS documentary inspired a change of course. “I was working at the National Institute of Health in the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute when I saw this TV program where they were taking kids with various [craniofacial] syndromes and literally detaching the entire face,” he says. “They took a kid who was horrendously deformed and turned him into what looked like a totally normal person.”
A fascination with the dramatic, life-changing potential of plastic surgery to help facially disfigured young people led Cohen to the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he received his plastic surgical training. He later moved to Atlanta, where he was codirector of the Center for Craniofacial Disorders at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and a partner in a plastic surgery practice.
Ten years ago, Cohen moved to San Diego and became the chief of craniofacial surgery and the surgical director of the Craniofacial Center at Children’s Hospital of San Diego. He also founded his ultrasuccessful La Jolla practice, FACESplus, a decade ago. He’s been voted Top Doctor five times. Today, he teaches medical students at UCSD and helps direct craniofacial services at Rady Children’s Hospital. Cohen devotes 30 percent of his time to caring for kids at Rady and volunteering with Fresh Start—work that “keeps me anchored,” he says.
Cohen was instrumental in founding the Fresh Start Clinic at Rady Children’s Hospital, the new permanent location for Fresh Start’s Surgery Weekends (there are seven annually). During a typical Surgery Weekend, the team of medical volunteers performs 10-15 major surgeries, multiple minor surgeries and laser treatments, and conducts 25-30 patient evaluations. Fresh Start also provides free dental work and speech therapy. Since the first Surgery Weekend in 1991, Fresh Start has delivered some $16 million in medical services to disadvantaged kids from all over the world.
Visit rchsd.org for information about Dr. Cohen’s work at Rady Children’s Hospital, or facesplus.com to learn more about his plastic surgery practice. The Web site for Fresh Start Surgical Gifts is freshstart.org; phone number is 760-944-7774.
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