On April 27, a group of 30 health professionals from Yale and other universities will land in Lima, Peru, to meet with children and family members at the nearby children’s hospital. But this is no vacation — for their weeklong stay, Yale plastic surgery professor J. Grant Thomson and his delegation of plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, physical therapists and nurses will be the only pediatric hand specialists in the entire country.
For Peruvian children with hand deformities, this will be their ticket to a normal life. For Thomson’s organization HandHelp, this is hardly new. This trip marks their 20th mission to Central and South America, and will be their second trip to Peru.
According to Yale hand and microsurgery fellow and HandHelp treasurer Marc Walker, hand surgery is a void that neither developing countries nor medical organizations such as Operation Smile have the resources to fill. Compared to cleft lip surgery, which is a fairly common operation for medical missions to do, hand disorders take more time, energy and money to fix.
“Hand surgery, unlike cleft surgery, relies a lot on follow-up and physical therapy and rehab,” Walker said. “We can fix whatever problem you have on the hand, but if you don’t have someone to show you how to use your hand after it’s fixed, it gets stiff, and becomes what is essentially a slightly better-looking hand but one that doesn’t work.”
Since HandHelp relies on the host nation for follow-up doctor visits and physical therapy appointments, the organization also brings Yale occupational therapists to Lima to coordinate care with Peruvian therapists, something that Walker said differentiates HandHelp from larger organizations like Operation Smile, which are larger and therefore have higher overhead costs.
“Most missions are strictly surgical. They go down, operate on the patients, they leave, and there’s no follow-up. …We do research every time. We always do therapy and we always connect with them and follow up. We work directly with the Peruvian surgeons, physicians and therapists,” he said.
This year, HandHelp is raising money not only for the trip but also for a $750,000 perpetuity fund, something that will enable the organization to focus on expanding its reach by offloading some of the baseline burden, which includes transportation and lodging, according to Walker.
The organization hopes to raise this money through individual donations, a GoFundMe page and an annual Cheers for Charity pub crawl on March 16 from 2 to 7 p.m.
“It costs between 40 and 50 thousand dollars per trip. Even though 50,000 dollars sounds like a big number for a trip, it’s millions of dollars worth of surgery that we’re performing in a five-day period,” Walker said.
HandHelp has also been to Nicaragua and Honduras multiple times. By focusing on hand surgery, Yale plastic and reconstructive surgery resident Ean Saberski believes the organization positively impacts Peruvians of all walks of life.
“Not only do you capture babies who were born in the past year but you capture people that have been out in their community without access to hand surgery for 50 years,” he said. “They’ve been getting by, but you can do an hour surgery on them and change their life forever, and you can increase their work productivity, their happiness, the utility of their hand and just their overall quality of life.”
For the HandHelp staff, the time spent away from the Yale New Haven Hospital is easily justifiable. Walker said that doctors are drawn into medicine to provide help to those who need it most.
“For that one week,” he said, “We’re in a way living that dream. It’s a nice way for us to bring a skill set that is universally applicable to a place where they simply don’t have it.”
According to the HandHelp website, the organization has served 1,340 patients since its creation in 1998.
Matthew Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org