ROCHESTER — Dr. Vito Quatela’s medical missions to Quito, Ecuador, not only correct facial deformities of children born with such conditions as microtia and cleft palate. The reconstructive surgeries also save the children’s lives.
That is why Jerid Fisher, a local forensic neuropsychologist, said he joined the board of director’s for Quatela’s Help Us Give Smiles (HUGS) foundation. Quatela, a clinical associate professor in the University of Rochester’s otolaryngology department, runs the Quatela Center for Plastic Surgery on East Avenue.
“People think of cosmetic surgery as something optional,” Fisher said. “But these procedures are for life. These children are literally discarded by society. Some are discovered in Dumpsters. These are life-saving (procedures), … not optional. This is the real deal.”
Quatela said he first participated in helping children in other countries through a program called Face to Face International, which coordinates relief and medical missions. During these missions, he helped teach local doctors how to perform surgical procedures that they could utilize for treatment.
Also during these missions, he came to realize that for local doctors, it was more a lack of resources than any other factor that was preventing them from performing the procedures. In Quito, for example, 67 percent of the population lives below poverty, with an average monthly income of $387, according to information from Quatela’s staff. The cost for a local doctor to repair the ear of a child born with microtia — a condition characterized by a malformed, poorly developed external ear — is $10,000.
“Local doctors would like to help,” Quatela said. “They can’t afford to do it.”
In light of this, Quatela said he decided to gather his own team of surgeons, nurses and other medical staff to operate on these children. After Dr. Mack Cheney — director of facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary — told him that Ecuador has one of the world’s highest rates of microtia, Quatela participated in his first mission trip to the country’s capital, Quito, in 2003.
“I loved it,” Quatela said of participating in medical missions. “I come back energized, with a different kind of kick in my step. … It’s a great thing.”
Also in 2003, the challenges of paying for such missions became clear to Quatela. He recalled that the volunteers involved in his first trip to Quito had scheduled vacation time in order to participate, but learned two weeks before leaving that the team lacked the necessary funds to make the trip. Quatela said he decided to pay for the trip out of his own pocket; missions usually cost about $45,000 for supplies, equipment and the volunteers’ travel, food and lodging. Medical personnel also donate about $500,000 worth of surgical fees.
“I decided there’s a better way (to fund missions),” he said.
That same year, Quatela founded HUGS and reluctantly turned to his staff for help in fundraising. Nancy Good, the foundation’s treasurer, took the lead on raising money.
“I was afraid to ask patients for money,” Quatela said. “But patients have been more than giving. … Our goal is to do as many kids as possible.”
It was through Good that Fisher, president of Brain Injury Consultants, first learned about HUGS. Fisher said Good had previously worked for him at a former company he ran. When she asked him to oversee HUGS’ fundraising and board, Fisher said he jumped at the chance. He calls Quatela a “renaissance man.”
“There are not a lot of people like him in the world. … He’s a tireless person,” Fisher said. “These are (surgeons) who can make tons of money and could be very comfortable at home, leading comfortable lives. But they go out and make those sacrifices to travel to places that really are quite dangerous. I give them a lot of credit. … They really are making a difference in children’s lives.”
Fisher said the board is thinking of coordinating a fundraiser in Boston, since some of the team’s seven surgeons practice at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. An annual Valentine’s gala held locally has raised more than $100,000 for HUGS the last two years, he added, and the organization also receives many individual donations.
“Any amount makes a difference,” he said.
Quatela said donations to HUGS also help the team purchase necessary equipment for the Fundaci√≥n Tierra Nueva Hospital in Quito, such as a ventilation system that includes air conditioning for the operating room. Currently, the foundation hopes to purchase a $30,000 nerve-monitoring system, he said.
Next year’s goal, Quatela said, is expanding HUGS’ work to Guatemala with assistance from one of the team’s surgeons and a Franciscan priest that Quatela met during his residency. The team will work at Hermano Pedro Hospital, which is connected to an orphanage.
In Ecuador, the team has operated on more than 350 children. According to information from a HUGS pamphlet, the corrective surgery that team members perform for microtia involves removing a small section of three adjacent ribs to create an outer-ear structure. The entire procedure involves four stages that are performed during subsequent mission trips, Quatela noted.
Quatela said he finds mission work so validating because the level of need is great in other countries and because of the tremendous appreciation shown by the Ecuadoran people. The doctors also make a positive impact on patients’ lives without having to worry about such issues as insurance reimbursements and malpractice insurance, he added.
“All that you are doing … is focusing on the real reason you go to medical school,” which Quatela said is to help people.
Mary Kay Dussum, who coordinates such logistics as transport and lodging for Quatela’s team and helps with translation, said the difference these medical missions make in the lives of Ecuadoran families is invaluable.
“Dr. Vito Quatela and his team come to work with these people with scant financial resources and alter their view of the world,” Dussum wrote in an e-mail. “The physical change is not even as remarkable as the transformation in their soul. Many of these children have been hidden away or ridiculed for a physical deformity that can be fixed.”
“He brings much hope and a solution to correct this physical aspect as well as an immediate improvement in their hearts and self-esteems,” she added. “It’s a different person that leaves the operating room than the one who enters it. You see the change in the way they speak and feel about themselves. It’s also an amazing physical change.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about HUGS, contact Lauren Andreacchi at 585-244-1000 or email@example.com.