After 100 medical trips abroad, Huntington Beach plastic surgeon still strives to be a ‘catalyst for change’
There’s a lot Dr. Larry Nichter has learned after two decades of traveling to developing countries to perform reconstructive plastic surgeries and train local medical teams. But if there’s one main takeaway, it’s that helping others is an obligation, he said.
Though he recently returned home from his 100th medical trip, during which he and other volunteers helped nearly 50 patients in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the Huntington Beach resident isn’t slowing down.
In fact, he boarded a plane Friday to help people in Argentina through his nonprofit, Plasticos. Trips to Cuba and Bolivia are planned for later this year.
“We really want to be the catalyst for change,” he said.
Nichter and his traveling team of doctors, nurses and coordinators volunteer their time and pay for the 10-day trips to perform free corrective surgeries on people who typically can’t afford such treatments.
He has traveled to Tibet, Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cuba, Thailand and elsewhere to help children with severe birth defects such as cleft lips and palates and those with burns and other traumatic injuries.
Unlike some nonprofits that provide free surgeries in developing countries, Nichter said Plasticos also aims to train medical teams in those locations to perform difficult operations after his group leaves. Plasticos also sometimes provides communities with equipment for surgeries.
Newport Beach residents Stephen and Traci Westerhout have traveled with Nichter five times, serving as anesthesiologist and recovery room nurse, respectively. The Westerhouts also are on the Argentina trip.
Stephen Westerhout said he felt a calling to provide direct medical support after his post-college stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala from 1987 to 1990. At the time, his skill set was limited and he wasn’t qualified to do much, Westerhout said.
“It’s nice to do what I dreamed of way back when,” he said. “We just have a lot of fun doing it and we both feel it’s important to see the world and try to help those in need.”
Despite occasional grueling settings in poverty-stricken nations, Nichter said trips abroad help “refresh your batteries and why you went into medicine in the start.”
“I appreciate my patients and family more when I come back from these trips,” he said. “I think that making a difference adds a whole different dimension to your life.”
With 100 trips under his belt, Nichter said he’s shifting his focus to his nonprofit’s legacy and succession planning.
If he follows through with his plan to retire from his Newport Beach-based practice in about seven years, he’ll devote himself to his nonprofit full time, he said.
He envisions creating an incubator program with young surgeons that could help communities that lack necessary funding. He also is working to establish an endowment fund in honor of his late wife that would help fund at least one trip per year.
“Despite 20 years of incredible success, I’d view it as a failure if I and a few other board members were to pass on and this wouldn’t go on,” he said.
Plasticos will hold its annual fundraising masquerade ball Sept. 14 at the Balboa Bay Resort, 1221 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach. Tickets can be purchased at bit.ly/2Hy3UNm.
To learn more about the nonprofit, visit plasticosfoundation.org.
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