O.C.-based medical team heads to Ecuador jungle on a mission

O.C.-based medical team heads to Ecuador jungle on a mission

Group will provide free plastic surgery to children in dire need.

The next time you’re waiting in a doctor’s office, getting antsy, you might want to remember this story.

Huntington Beach doctor Larry Nichter arrived high in the Andes mountains to find hundreds of people with cleft lips and other deformities camped out. In the rain. They began lining up two days earlier, many after walking for days, because that’s when they were told they would be treated.

When the doctors finally arrived, the crowd began to murmur.

Instead of being angry, Nichter said, they were excited. It started low, but then grew to a chant: “North Americanos! North Americanos!”

In the developing world, surgery is a luxury. And doctors like Nichter are magicians and miracle workers.

On Wednesday, a new team of Orange County doctors and nurses will travel to a jungle town in the Amazon where people have been lining up since Saturday. It will be Plasticos Foundation’s maiden journey, and Nichter’s dream come true.

Nichter is a plastic surgeon. Seventeen years ago, he began joining U.S. medical teams traveling to Third World nations. He has logged 32 trips, operating on thousands of children.

But the more trips Nichter took, the more need he saw. Several years ago he and Bob Burns, a general surgeon from Laguna Beach, held the first Plasticos meeting.

On Wednesday, after months of planning and packing mobile operating rooms, Plasticos will roll. Three doctors, three nurses, an anthropologist, a paramedic and a coordinator depart for Macas, Ecuador, a town on the outskirts of the jungle.

Their mission is to do as many reconstructive surgeries on children as possible in 10 days. There is a high incidence of deformities in Third World countries because of malnutrition, lack of prenatal care and a limited genetic pool. Yet the surgeons there often don’t know how to correct the anomalies. Even if they did, such surgery is a luxury in these impoverished countries.

At the same time, children with deformities are shunned.

Denise Cucurny, an anthropologist who lives in Huntington Beach with her two teens and teaches at California State University, Long Beach, and Laguna College of Art and Design, is on the Plasticos team. She said anomalies are often blamed on curses, karma and superstitions.

One old wives’ tale says a pregnant woman who sees someone with a cleft palate will have a child with a cleft palate. Another is that children with cleft palates are paying for the sins of their grandparents.

So the children are hidden away.

Cucurny recalls one 16-year-old girl she spoke with on a past trip. “She was raised in a closet because of the shame associated with it.”

Many of the indigenous people in this region of the Amazon – former headhunters called the Shuar and Achuar – have never seen a Western doctor. They come out of the jungle when they hear over radios that the doctors are arriving. “They come by foot and boat and bus and every means possible to make it,” Nichter said.

On Saturday, Cucurny got word that 50 people were already waiting for them.

Cucurny said that when she went on her first trip to Ecuador a year ago, she envisioned helping little doe-eyed children with perhaps a small lip imperfection. The reality was less cuddly.

“These kids are a mess,” Cucurny said. “They’ve got scabies. So much lice you can see it crawling on their hair. Oozing sores. They’re dirty. They’re poor. They’re sick. And they need help.”

By the end of the trip, Cucurny had fallen in love. “I’ve laughed with them, I’ve cried with them, I’ve seen their blood,” she said.

Team members who have been on past trips unanimously say they get more back than they give.

“It’s a very powerful battery recharger,” Nichter said. “It prevents disillusionment, burn out. You transform a person’s life.”

Actually, countless lives.

Plasticos’ mission is to teach the doctors there the techniques used here.

It’s the sort of inspiration that will help the team get past the poisonous vipers in the toilets. The cockroaches in the medical supplies. And the hairy spiders the size of personal pizzas. Not to mention the deadly disease-carrying mosquitoes and hepatitis.

It also helps them get through 12-14 hours of surgery a day with antiquated equipment. “(It’s) guaranteed at some point the electricity will go off, so the flashlights will come out,” Nichter said. “Traveling on these trips is almost like traveling back in time to the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s.”

Burns and his wife, RuthAnn Burns, have traveled extensively to Third World countries, but it was when they saw Katmandu and its medieval hospital and the number of children walking around with deformities that they heard the call.

What the Plasticos team has in compassion it lacks in money. They admit they haven’t been successful fund-raisers. A trip costs about $40,000. This time around it is for the most part coming out of their own pockets. Another trip is planned for Brazil this spring.

“Think about it,” Nichter said. “The ability to change a person’s life by a simple act. It sort of becomes addictive.”

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