To China, with smiles
Chico doctor talks about his work repairing cleft palates overseas
Dr. Ray Yip is counting the days until Sept. 5.
That is when the Chico doctor will join a team of 35 people, including 17 Chicoans, who will bring their medical expertise to a small village in China in order to help children get a new lease on life.
Yip, who is part of the medical team at the Skyway Surgery Center, is the head anesthesiologist for Alliance for Smiles, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgery for cleft lips and palates to underserved children around the world.
Cleft lips and palates are anomalies that cause severe facial disfigurement and occur worldwide once in every 850 births. China has been singled out by the organization because one in every 350 babies born in the country is diagnosed with the problem.
The country’s one-child policy has forced families that can’t afford the proper treatment to make difficult decisions.
“I remember one man was told by his village to take his child to us and, ‘If you can’t fix him, don’t bring him back,’ ” Yip said. “It’s terrible for families to know that this is their one chance.”
Founded in 2004, the organization has completed 13 medical missions and has provided more than 1,200 children with corrective surgery. The cost per patient is valued at $1,000.
Yip said that he first “fell in love” with using his medical skills to help kids when he was given a last-minute opportunity to travel to Chile in 2002. “I felt like this was my calling,” he said of his experience working in a foreign clinic.
This will be Yip’s eighth trip to a foreign country. For 10 days, he will help repair the faces of 150 children ranging in age from toddlers to 9 years old. Yip described the process as hectic and somewhat chaotic; about 1,000 candidates for surgery are screened, and none of them speak English.
“If this is your first trip and you make it through clinic, you can handle anything,” Yip said with a laugh.
One of the most rewarding experiences for Yip is when former patients come back for a visit during the follow-up clinic. The children, formerly embarrassed by their appearance, return with big smiles on their faces and proudly pose for photographs.
Those joyful smiles are not cheap, however. Each trip has a price tag of $80,000. Although many of the supplies used in the surgeries are donated by hospitals, including Enloe Medical Center, Yip and the others attending the trip have had to reach out to the community for financial support to fund other expenses.
The Chico community has been receptive to their needs. On June 16, La Hacienda restaurant will be donating 20 percent of the day’s sales to Alliance for Smiles. Enloe has allowed employees to cash out their paid time off to donate to the trip’s fund. Chico Rotary has also played a role in the project, financing a grant and sending club members to fill non-medical roles on the team headed to China, Yip said.
“Hopefully people catch a vision of what we are trying to do,” Yip said, adding that while the economic conditions have made it difficult for some to donate money to the organization, there are other ways to get involved.
After returning from his latest trip with stories about what he did and saw, Yip noticed an increase in interest from other doctors who wanted to help in a foreign clinic.
However, some doctors find it difficult to take time away from their families to make the trip. Others are enthusiastic about going but are unsure about how to make the arrangements.
On April 16, Enloe will be hosting a panel discussion entitled “Global Good Deeds” to highlight caregivers who have done work abroad in order to help those who haven’t yet ventured to another country but are interested in getting started. The event, hospital officials say, is inspired by the story of building schools in remote areas of Pakistan described in the Chico and Butte County book-in-common, Three Cups of Tea.
Patti Johnson, who has been a charge nurse at Enloe for 20 years, will speak about her experiences traveling to Uganda as part of a group of 15 from the Rock of Roseville church in July 2008. She helped treat 1,000 patients in six days and said that she would go back to Africa “in a heartbeat.”
What she witnessed during her work—a tiny 3-week-old who was suffering from malaria; people forced to drink swamp water; advanced fungal infections—helped her understand the drastic medical needs of the people in the area.
“We complain when our latte is made wrong at the coffee shop, and they don’t even have running water,” she said.
She hopes that the panel will encourage the attendees to explore the many options that are available to travel abroad and help people who are less fortunate.
“There is a lot of medical staff that would like to go, but don’t even know how to begin,” she said, noting that there are many things to consider before deciding to go on a trip.
Several organizations will be present at Enloe’s event to educate physicians about their programs. Yip will represent Alliance for Smiles and hopes to encourage potential first-timers at practicing medicine abroad to take the plunge.
“We have had an excellent representation of quality people from Chico come on the trips,” he said, “and we anticipate more.”