More than 50 children in Guatemala recently received free hand surgery, thanks, in part, to a voluntary doctor from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso). The procedures were conducted during a 12-day medical mission trip to the developing country.
For TTUHSC El Paso’s Miguel Pirela-Cruz, M.D., the trip marked his 11th visit to the country with the Guatemala Healing Hands Foundation (GHHF) — a nonprofit that provides specialized health care to Guatemalans with congenital hand conditions, burns and injuries. Dr. Pirela-Cruz was a member of the founding team that first launched the organization back in 2004.
“After that first trip, we realized that we couldn’t just stop going,” explained Pirela-Cruz, who serves on the GHHF’s board of directors. “There was so much more help that was needed.”
Now, Dr. Pirela-Cruz visits the country every year and a half, taking interested TTUHSC El Paso medical students and residents with him. This year, Dr. Pirela-Cruz and the GHHF team — which includes additional medical volunteers from throughout the U.S. — screened nearly 125 patients for surgery and conducted 53 operations in just five days; some children underwent more than one procedure.
“We treat a lot of congenital anomalies and traumatic injuries from electrocution and burns,” says Dr. Pirela-Cruz. “The infrastructure for electricity in Guatemala is not very good; there are many code violations, so children are often electrocuted and end up losing their limbs or hand function.”
As an upper extremity surgeon, Dr. Pirela-Cruz specializes in hand and microvascular surgery, nerve transfers and limb replantation. For some patients in Guatemala, this means having the opportunity to regain or improve hand function that would otherwise be lost.
The physician still recalls one of the worst cases he has ever seen as surgeon. A 15-year-old boy’s forearms were permanently plastered to his upper arms after he was severely electrocuted and burned at the age of three. Due to the complexity of the deformity, the teenager was flown to El Paso, where Dr. Pirela-Cruz and other volunteer doctors from the community could successfully correct his hands, helping him gain better function and a more aesthetic appearance.
In addition to bringing much-needed medical care to a developing country, the mission trip serves as a networking opportunity for students to meet prominent hand surgeons from throughout the U.S. For residents nearing the completion of their orthopaedic residencies at TTUHSC El Paso, that means they can apply for fellowships with the hand surgeons they met on the GHHF trip. The medical mission also helps them decide if they want to pursue a career in hand surgery.
About the Guatemala Healing Hands Foundation:
The GHHF began in 2004 as an outreach program for the American Association for Hand Surgery’s Vargas Award and has since grown into a holistic hand surgery and therapy program. It also conducts targeted community outreach projects, such as building latrines, stoves, school desks and benches. All this is conducted in the town of Chichoy Alto, a Mayan village in the highlands of Guatemala, where families live on $1 a day.
Since its establishment in 2004, the GHHF has evaluated 1,302 patients for hand surgery or therapy; conducted surgery on 510 patients; and fabricated 1,086 orthotics. The foundation also hosts educational lectures and workshops for local medical providers and physical and occupational therapists; these lectures span all aspects of orthopaedics, including how to make orthotics and care for nerve injuries. Physicians, nurses, surgical techs, anesthesiologists, hand therapists and non-medical volunteers from across the Unites States and Canada fly in to take part in the initiative.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/guatemalahealinghands.