While still attending undergraduate school, Dr. Patrick J. Byrne made a promise: If he had the good fortune to go into medicine and become a doctor, he would do something for the underserved.
That promise has transitioned from volunteering on medical mission trips each year to establishing his own nonprofit, the Face Forward Foundation.
Focused on providing free treatment to correct cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children in Nicaragua and other developing countries, the Baltimore-based nonprofit also follows up the surgeries with rehabilitation services provided through a telemedicine initiative.
"Our goal is to devise strategies to provide the same level of comprehensive care to poor kids overseas as we give to the kids in the United States," said Byrne, the director of the Division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
For the past three years Byrne has organized trips to Nicaragua with a group of surgeons, specialists and nurses who volunteer their time to perform corrective lip and palate surgeries for children in need. The most recent trip occurred in May, when they consulted with over 80 patients and operated on more than 60 children in five days.
"If we can fix one child at a time, we can give that kid at least a chance at a normal life," said Byrne. "It's incredible."
While Byrne still goes on mission trips to other countries, he decided to focus the Face Forward Foundation's efforts primarily on Nicaragua because he said there's a network of volunteers in place who are motivated to help address cleft lip and palate treatment in a systematic way.
"We decided to focus our efforts here with the idea to create the highest quality cleft center in the world," said Byrne, who also takes on the issue locally.
He, along with doctors Randolph Capone and Antonie Kline, serve as co-medical directors of the Greater Baltimore Cleft Lip and Palate Team based at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The group provides comprehensive care to children with congenital facial deformities.
It was here that Dr. Jose E. Dominguez, a pediatric anesthesiologist at GBMC, began volunteering his time. He later decided to go on the Face Forward Foundation's annual trip to Nicaragua. The visit in May was his second trip and he hopes to go again next year.
"It's an opportunity to practice what we do and what we love, and to help others at the same time," said Dominguez. "It's a best-of-both-worlds scenario."
Kim Prey, a nurse with Johns Hopkins Health Care & Surgery Center at Green Spring Station, made her third trip with the group in May. She said she has a hard time explaining to others how working so hard can be so invigorating.
"I think that the answer is in the faces of the people we help who otherwise wouldn't have access to this type of medical treatment," she said.
Cleft lip and palate deformities are among the most common facial birth defects worldwide. In developed countries children not only receive corrective surgeries, but also have access to a team of specialists since they often can't swallow, eat or speak normally.
This year the Face Forward Foundation launched a telemedicine initiative that uses modern technology to provide needed post-surgical therapy via the web, using web conferencing and a high-definition webcam to connect speech therapists in the United States with patients in Nicaragua.
"When we operate on these kids, we fix lips and repair palates, which is great. Just that alone is life-changing," said Byrne. "But we're hoping to be able to provide the other therapies they need to help them lead normal lives."
For more information visit faceforwardfoundation.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times