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Surgeon’s trip gives new hope

In their own country, Dr. Ron Gemberling’s patients are considered lepers and monsters – misfits of society, who are kept in dark rooms, ostracized from social interaction because of their looks.

Due to malnutrition, poor prenatal care and unhealthy living conditions, about 13,000 South American children are born each year with cleft lips and/or palates. The facial deformities cause an open connection between the nasal cavity and mouth.

Next week, Gemberling, a board-certified plastic surgeon, heads for Venezuela, to embark on a second Rotaplast mission.



The program, in conjunction with Rotary International, involves plastic surgeons from around the world who volunteer their time to correct cleft deformities in Third World countries.

“Our entire team is going,” he said. “Plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, geneticists, nurses …”




A Rotarian in Silicon Valley, Gemberling has been practicing medicine at South Shore for 20 years. He and six other surgeons from the United States, Italy, Turkey and Chile will spend two weeks in the city of Maracaibo, where they will work 12- to 15-hour days, performing operations.

“I’ve never done anything so personally rewarding that I can do with my hands,” Gemberling said. “The motivation is, I want to be there and the reward is something money can’t buy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the most rewarding thing.”

The operations are done without compensation for the surgeons or staff.

Last year, Gemberling and his foreign and domestic associates screened more than 200 Venezuelan children who had cleft deformities. In addition to the mental and emotional anguish involved, these defects can cause speech problems and extreme difficulty in ingesting food or liquids, since the substance comes out the nose before the child has the chance to swallow it.

“Out of 201 kids evaluated, there were 183 healthy candidates and we operated on 163, but some of the kids needed more than one procedure, so the total number of procedures was 195,” Gemberling said. “Last year was the initial trip and this is the follow-up trip. Our goal this trip is to operate on 180 (people.)”

Some benefits of corrective surgery, according to Gemberling, are a transformation of hope, aspiration and self-esteem for a child, a relief from unjustified guilt and rejection by parents and family, and the potential for lifelong productivity.

“Kids with these deformities are kept in dark rooms. They can’t be out in the work force. They’re considered social lepers,” Gemberling said. “It is a tremendous, almost religious experience to see these mothers (after surgery.) They come in so thankful.”

Rotaplast surgeons are sponsored by Rotary clubs across the globe. The cost of the trip is about $40,000, which Gemberling said is a small price to pay for the $745,400 in medical services provided.

“The Rotary return on investment is 95 percent,” he said. “So when I go around to the clubs and beg for money, my hat in hand, that’s what I show them.”

The Rotaplast team also teaches local physicians in Third World countries how to perform cleft lip and palate procedures.

“We want them to be able to do it themselves. That’s the main goal, so there is a real focus on education,” Gemberling said. “If you give a person a fish, they’ll eat for a day but if you teach a person how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Using translators, Gemberling and two other plastic surgeons will be lecturing to Maracaibo doctors about cleft surgery, in addition to performing numerous surgeries.

Rotaplast was formed in 1990 during an international Rotary convention in Portland, Ore. In 1993, doctors held their first clinic in Chile.

In seven years, the program has grown. This year, Rotaplast teams will volunteer their services in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia.

“I will always continue going back to these places,” Gemberling said. “I will be continuing with this program for the rest of my life. This is the most rewarding thing I’ve done as a plastic surgeon.”


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