On January 3, 1997, an Interplast team led by plastic surgeon Larry Nichter left for An Giang, Vietnam, a remote province in the Mekong Delta. Accompanying the team was a film crew from Denver-based Dewey-Obenchain Films whose assignment was to make a documentary about Interplast’s work in Vietnam. A little over a year later, the film, A Story of Healing, won the Oscar for “Best Documentary Short Subject” at the Academy Awards.
|Dr. Larry Nichter in A Story of Healing||
The outcome of this Interplast trip was beyond our wildest dreams — in the latter days of December 1996, we could never have imagined that this seemingly ill-fated venture would result in an award-winning film.
For those of you who have been a member of an Interplast team, the road from trip acceptance to boarding a flight is fairly effortless. All you need is a valid passport and two photos for a visa. Sometimes, however, it isn’t that simple. Dr. Larry Nichter turned out to be a wonderful spokesperson for Interplast in the film, but it took 40 people and over 100 phone calls to get him to Vietnam.
Dr. Dave Thomas, plastic surgeon, Interplast Board Member, and President of the Utah Chapter, had led this trip to outlying provinces for several years. Shortly before Christmas 1996, Dave notified Interplast extremely distressed-he was suffering from a herniated disc and was unable to go on the trip. Because the second surgeon, Dr. Jeff Resnick, was new to Interplast, we decided, with little hope of success given the very short notice, to find an Interplast veteran surgeon to lead the team. To complicate matters, the film crew from Denver, funded by Interplast donors-the Dr. W.C. Swanson Family Foundation and Mark Elconin, Interplast Board Member-was joining the team to produce a documentary. This trip was chosen for a number of reasons, including the fact that Dr. Thomas was leading it and runs a model trip.
First, we put together a list of veteran surgeons. The phone lines buzzed over the next few days as we searched for a surgeon who could help us out. To our surprise and relief, Dr. Larry Nichter from Huntington Beach, California said he thought he could join the team, but only for the first week. Larry had been to Vietnam with Interplast in 1992, as well as to other Interplast
Sites — he was an ideal choice. However, Larry had already committed to join another group working in the Dominican Republic and was not sure he could do both trips. He wanted to talk to the leader of the other group before he gave us the green light. This conversation had to wait for several days because of both surgeons’ work loads.
When we called Larry to find out if he could confirm, we were told by his office that he was out of town and unreachable. We eventually tracked him down and he gave us the go-ahead. Now, we only had to get him a plane ticket and a visa — not such an easy task over the holidays as it turned out. We searched for someone in the Washington, D.C. area who could hand-carry Larry’s passport into the Vietnamese Consulate and, hopefully, get the visa the same day. Dr. Richard Casuccio of Virginia became involved at that point but could not locate anyone who was able to help us.
So, we Fedexed the passport to the embassy in Washington, D.C. and held our breath. We waited. On Monday, December 30, when the visa and passport still had not arrived back at the travel agency, we developed a contingency plan-if it didn’t arrive before Friday, one of us would personally fly the passport to Los Angeles and hand deliver it to Larry at the airport.
Tuesday, December 31 — the new year looked hopeful. The visa and passport were delivered
to the travel agency. We thought we were home free. The travel agency Fedexed the documents to Larry and that’s when our troubles really began.
When we arrived at the office on Thursday, January 2, after a restful New Year’s Day, we learned that Larry had not received the Fedex package. His flight was leaving at 11 PM. the next day. We had to find that package! We contacted the Fedex manager at the Huntington Beach office who in turn called his counterparts at the Los Angeles and Oakland airports. Records showed the documents being loaded onto the plane at Oakland, then all trace of the package vanished. All three managers put their employees on alert; they were asked to search their trucks. Although the package was not routed to Memphis (Fedex Headquarters), they searched there also. In Mountain View, three of us (Susan Hayes, CEO and President, Amy Laden, Director, Medical Services, and Beverly Kent, Professional Services Coordinator) were working full-time on this dilemma — it turned out to be a fruitless effort.
By Friday morning we realized that the Fedex package was hopelessly lost and that we had better try to get Larry a new passport and visa. The three of us continued our team effort, but now we had to include Larry in the endeavor. Unfortunately, Larry had office hours on Friday, as well as patients scheduled for office surgery. Through calls to various members of Congress and other political contacts, we were able to pave the way for Larry to go to the Los Angeles Passport office and see a passport agent immediately on arrival. Larry, however, had to go in person. He faced the difficult job of going into his waiting room full of patients and explaining to them that he couldn’t see them because of this crisis. We arranged for a car and driver to take Larry to Los Angeles from Long Beach so that he could continue to write notes he had to complete before leaving the country.
Back at the Interplast office, we were meeting for hourly updates, each one of us working the phone and fax machine. Once we had finally gotten word that Larry would be able to obtain a temporary passport, we turned our attention to the other major problem — a visa. Mr. Thana at the Vietnamese Consulate in Washington, D.C. (at the time there was not yet a consulate in San Francisco) insisted that he had to put the visa in the passport, in spite of the special circumstances. He was accommodating within his boundaries — he was even willing to come into the office on Saturday to get the passport if we Fedexed it to him, but then we wouldn’t have it back until Monday, and Larry wouldn’t be able to leave until Monday night.
We turned the heat up under Mr. Thana as high as we could. Once again, we got on the phone to the various political connections we had in Washington, D.C. Our highly-placed friends made calls to Mr. Thana — he was immovable.
Luckily, we had a copy of the original visa which was in the original passport before both were lost. We decided to take our chances and send Larry to Vietnam with the temporary passport and the photocopied visa. But then another wrinkle appeared. China Air could get penalized $10,000 if they allowed someone to board with improper documents. Our Sales Rep at China Air along with our travel agent joined the team effort. If Larry had been leaving from San Francisco, the Sales Rep could have assured us that he would be able to board. She was not sure about the Los Angeles personnel. To complicate matters further, the shift would change at 5 PM., and she couldn’t contact the people who would be on duty until then.
Once we decided that he could probably get by with the photocopy, there was nothing left to do except wait until we got word from China Air. Larry had a business-related dinner engagement, and he hadn’t yet packed. We stayed in touch all evening via cell phone. At 5:30 P.M. we got word that China Air in Los Angeles would allow him to board.
Larry called at 11 PM. to let us know that he had checked in. The plane left late, it was overloaded, the film crew’s equipment was off-loaded and arrived a day late, which meant that the team left for the provinces without the film crew, they caught up. ..but that’s another story.
Volunteers and staff worked as a team and pulled it off. The trip was a complete success-and we have a little gold statue to prove it.