Aspiring doctor travels to Philippines to aid in children’s cleft-lip surgeries

(Photo used by permission of Bhullar)
Senior Avi Bhullar, center, dances while fifth-grader Ava Kaufman blows bubbles to entertain a patient.

Senior Avi Bhullar participated in a volunteer doctor program with the Medical Mission for Children in Leyte, the Philippines, Sept. 15-25. Sharing her family’s passion for medicine, Bhullar plans on following in her mother’s footsteps as a doctor. She and her mother, Harmeet Bhullar,  went with Kate and Dave Kaufman, parents of three lower schoolers (third-grader Grant, fifth-grader Ava and seventh-grader Trevor). 

Q: Why did you decide to do this?

A: My mom has been going on medical missions for a really long time with a company called Rotoplast. They do cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgeries, a disorder which causes someone to be born without either their palate or their upper lip at birth, making eating and drinking extremely difficult at a young age. In Third World countries, people don’t have the necessary resources to do these surgeries. The surgeries cost more than people there can usually afford.

Once I knew for sure I really wanted to be a doctor, I asked my mom to go with her. She had been going on these trips for the past three years. The only problem was that her company doesn’t allow people that are under 18, so I couldn’t go before (now).

Q: Have you done anything like this in the past?

A: I haven’t ever done anything outside of this area, but I have volunteered and shadowed doctors at Joan Viteri Clinic in Davis. That clinic specifically serves drug addicts, prostitutes and people with addictions who can’t always help themselves.

(Photo used by permission of Bhullar)
Above: a boy shows his cleft-lip deformity before the operation. Below: the same boy rests after his operation.

Q: Why did you choose to go on this trip in particular?

A: I’m really grateful for this opportunity because the Kaufmans’ father (Dave Kaufman) is a plastic surgeon,  and he works with the MMFC (Medical Mission for Children). That particular company does similar surgeries in Third World countries, so the family decided to go together. Kate decided to bring a high schooler with them as well, since she was already bringing her daughter (Ava). Since Ms. J knew that senior Alexa Mathisen and I were very interested in medicine, she told us about this trip. Unfortunately Alexa couldn’t go, and at first my parents didn’t want to let me go either. But then, almost miraculously, they actually needed an anesthesiologist, so me and my mom ended up going together.

Q: Where did you stay?

A: From San Francisco we flew to Hong Kong, which took about 15 hours.

We met the OR (Operating Room) team in Hong Kong as well as the PACU (Post-Anaesthesia Care Unit) team, two nurses who help before and after surgeries.

From Hong Kong we flew to Manila, where we stayed the night in the Dusit Thani Resort.

What really surprised me was the crazy traffic. As a driver, I thought I could never drive here. We were never farther than two inches from the nearest car.

While driving to the hotel, we passed by hundreds of houses built from wood and metal scraps. The difference between poor and rich was really clear. Huge contemporary skyscrapers would be right next to houses that were made of metal scrap. It’s amazing to see how you can have the poorest of the poor right next to the richest of the rich.

The next morning we flew to Leyte, an island in the Philippines. The OR team from Washington had  brought 13 mission bags, which included everything that we would need for the surgeries.

That was the first time the entire team of 12 people was together. “The Dirty Dozen,” we called ourselves. From there we took two vans from the airport to a hotel in Leyte

Q: What did you do to help the community there?

(Photo used by permission of Bhullar)
A girl rests after her cleft-palate surgery.

A: The main point of the mission was helping children with cleft palate and cleft lip.

The plan was to help every child that came to the hospital during our time there, and by the end we were able to help 30-35 kids. Ava Kaufman and I  would meet the kids for surgery every morning and write weight, age and all their important information on their ID tags. Then we had to run all of the information to the anesthesiologist (my mom).

We played and talked with the kids a lot to comfort them, and we could watch the surgeons work, which was really incredible. Once the plastic surgeons were done, you really couldn’t see that the kids had ever had any deformities.

Q: Was there anything you expected that you were surprised not to see?

A: I’d never been to a Third World country, so I thought it wasn’t going to be safe and that I would really need to be careful. But the people there were so nice and really sweet, and they were always apologizing. They even called us “sir and ma’am” which was really nice.

It struck me how in one of the poorest places of the Philippines, where the most recent typhoon hit the hardest, they seemed fairly unaffected.

Despite all that happened, they’ve almost completely rebuilt everything, which is amazing. It’s almost as if they don’t really know what more they could have, which is why they’re so happy and so content with what they do have.

(Photo used by permission of Bhullar)
Fifth-grader Ava Kaufman and senior Avi Bhullar sit in a tribike.

For these kids, having a coloring book was amazing. They didn’t really know what it was.

Q: Did you learn anything special from doing this kind of hands-on work?

A: I think this solidified that I want to be a doctor 100 percent, and I definitely want to go on trips like this.

What was really unique was how differently this hospital worked compared to the one in Davis.

The hospital was basically outdoors. In terms of hygiene, the operating room was clean, the doctors were responsible, but all the hygienic procedures weren’t there. Of course, you had to wear scrubs and cover your hair and everything, but they didn’t keep it as overly sterile as they do here.

There was this little girl, 11 or 12 years old, and she was gorgeous, but she refused to let us take a picture of her because she was so self-conscious about her cleft lip. We could see that a surgery like this would really change her life, and I could see what difficulties she would’ve had if she hadn’t had it.

There was one girl whose cleft palate was just too wide, and we couldn’t do anything. It felt so bad that when she woke up she would realize that they couldn’t do anything.

By Mehdi Lacombe

Print Friendly, PDF & Email