This article was written by Lauren Viner and originally published by "On Magazine."
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|Patrick Pownell, MD|
The medical team had some extra time during their final day onsite in the Dominican Republic and reached for a list of potential patients who were able to come at a moment’s notice. They contacted a village, and the final patient Dr. Patrick Pownell would treat on the mission trip arrived for treatment. For twenty years this man, who appeared closer to 65 than his actual age of about 40, had a benign tumor on his upper lip completely obstructing his mouth opening. Dr. Pownell brought him into the treatment room, administered local anesthetic, excised the lesion and closed his lip. It was a simple procedure. Dr. Pownell was moving to pack up and depart when he turned to see tears rolling down the man’s face. That lesion had been present for 20 years, with no means for removal. A basic, 15 minute operation had just solved a difficulty of half a lifetime.
Dr. Pownell reflects, “For me, it was a very simple procedure to remove what for him was the most difficult thing he had experienced in his entire life. It reminded me of how incredibly blessed we all are to be living in [the U.S.].”
Dr. Pownell is a plastic surgeon on the medical staff of Texas Institute for Surgery, and one of several surgeons there with a longstanding dedication to missions and serving others. He has been involved with the LEAP Foundation for most of the last two decades, on the governing board for ten years, and has made five trips to the Dominican Republic. “LEAP was started by a very good friend of mine, Dr. Craig Hobar. It was his vision to first serve the people of the Dominican Republic with a primary goal of providing free surgical care to children and adults born with deformities.” LEAP surgeons perform many procedures on children born with a cleft palate, often suffering from malnutrition. Since its founding in 1991, LEAP has sent fully equipped surgical units to 17 different countries, often operating in remote areas as a medical team of last resort. “Sometimes we have other specialists such as ophthalmologists, pediatric surgeons, or hand surgeons along with us which increases our ability to care for patients and allows us to take care of a greater number of patients.” The foundation commits to annual trips to the Dominican Republic, Belize and Zimbabwe and, for the last six years, has traveled to Damoh, India.
Committed to providing sustainable change to the destinations it visits, LEAP offers training and resources to onsite clinics and local surgeons, and education and support to local communities. One of the LEAP Foundation’s great strengths is its relationships with local partners. “The primary way we find patients is by interfacing with agencies such as the Peace Corps and local physicians and clinics to announce our upcoming arrival. Usually, patients are waiting for us when we arrive.” Each trip is carefully researched and tailored to the unique requirements of the destination. “When going to a new place, we always first send a small group of seasoned professionals to look at what the individual needs are for that country.” LEAP also brings patients to the U.S. for treatment by doctors here. The Landmark Fund brings difficult cases from around the world to the United States when more complex treatment cannot be performed in the patient’s home country.
Successfully organizing myriad logistics allows a trip to take place, helps everyone involved work effectively and facilitates the provision of care to the greatest possible number of people. Beyond planning and organization, those participating in a LEAP trip face personal and emotional challenges. Dr. Pownell says one of the challenges he encountered is that “sometimes the excitement of being able to help one of these patients is significantly dimmed by the disappointment of not being able to help so many others.” This reality requires difficult decisions. “On one of the trips, I was in charge of triage. The first day, we saw approximately 1,000 patients and it was my job to walk by each patient and determine whether we would treat them or not. Many of these patients thought we were the best opportunity they would ever have.”
One of the greatest things Dr. Pownell has learned in his involvement with LEAP is that a person does not always need to be the one going on a trip to make an impact. “Over the last few years, I have not been personally able to go… however, through my continual care and support of LEAP; I have been able to encourage numerous other nurses, doctors, and other professionals to go. It has also been a great joy to see many of my friends contribute financially to the continual growth and development of LEAP.”
LEAP represents people helping people — a team willing to answer the call to show grace and love in otherwise hopeless situations. Dr. Pownell reflects that “crossing the language barriers and cultural differences is the clear realization of how much parents long for their children to have the best care possible… despite utter poverty, parents love and want to care for their children just like I want to care for mine.”
For more information or to explore involvement in LEAP; visit leap-foundation.org.
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