News and Facts about Cuba

O.C. surgical team returning to Cuba for first time since 2006

O.C. surgical team returning to Cuba for first time since 2006
April 12, 2016 Updated 5:53 p.m.

By the numbers

18: Plasticos team members heading on the medical mission to Cuba.
7: Days the mission will perform surgical procedures and medical
professionals in Cuba.
50: Surgical procedures they hope to complete.
3: Plastic surgeons traveling with the team.
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Like a lot of things in Cuba, an Orange County nonprofit’s medical
mission there has been frozen in time – for nearly a decade.

The Plasticos Foundation, a Newport Beach-based group of medical
professionals, has traveled around the globe performing reconstructive
plastic surgery. Their patients are those who can least afford
reconstructive procedures and who often are ostracized because of their
appearance caused by genetic defects or disfiguring injuries.

The team made it to Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 2004 and 2006 and received
funding from an anonymous donor to head out again in 2007, but was
stopped by the U.S. government.

“We wrote letters and campaigned for several years without any luck,”
said Plasticos founder Dr. Larry Nichter, who has a cosmetic surgery
practice in Newport Beach.

But with the Obama administration’s move to resume relations with Cuba,
the team has an opportunity to continue its work in Cienfuegos. The team
headed by Nichter will include two other plastic surgeons, a general
surgeon, a pediatrician, three anesthesiologists, five nurses, trip
organizers and, for the first time, an orthodontist.

They’ll leave for Cuba on Saturday and spend about a week at the
Pediatrico Universitario, a children’s in Cienfuegos,
performing about 50 surgical procedures.

The trip is going to include a few complicated surgeries, including on
several burn injury patients. One of those involves a woman with a black
pigmentation on the left side of her face. The surgeons will remove all
skin from her eyebrow, forehead and cheek and replace it with skin from
her stomach, a process that could take about six hours, Nichter said.

In February, he and other members of the team, including the
foundation’s executive director, Susan Williamson, visited the hospital
in Cienfuegos to evaluate patients’ needs.

Williamson said what she saw was shocking: an IV bag warmer from the
1930s; foggy, yellow operating table lights; dial-up with
doctors getting only 25 hours of Internet use per month; and a dire
shortage of printer ink.

But what Williamson says she won’t soon forget was the hospital’s
procedure for cleaning surgical instruments.

“At the end of each day, the instruments would be taken into a shed
outside the hospital,” she said. “Someone wearing a gas mask would go
into that shed and clean the instruments using a substance that emitted
thick fumes.”

So during this trip, among other items, Plasticos will gift the hospital
an autoclave to sterilize instruments, new lights for the operating
theater, a new IV bag warmer, an otoscope – a device used to look inside
ears – and printer ink.

During the visit this year, Williamson said there were a few things that
jumped out at her outside the hospital walls too.

The giant billboards showing punching Uncle Sam and Uncle
Sam shooting a man with a bag over his head. In Cienfuegos, which is
much smaller than the capital city of Havana, Castro is larger than
life. Facades of homes still bear the images of Castro and Che Guevara.

Nichter says he is looking forward to sharing his team’s knowledge with
medical professionals in Cuba.

“They treat our brains like sponges,” he said. “They want to squeeze
every last drop of information while we’re there.”

Cuban doctors have shown most interest in breast reconstruction after
mastectomies, repairing burn injuries and performing flap surgeries, a
technique in plastic surgery in which tissue is lifted from a donor site
and moved to a recipient site with the blood supply intact.

“They are also eager to learn about techniques involving lasers and
moving large blocks of tissue,” Nichter said.

Every once in awhile, the American doctors learn something too, Nichter
said. He described an incident during their last trip when an
anesthesiologist on the Plasticos team sprung into action when a machine
that monitors the patient’s heartbeat started to beep.

A Cuban doctor checked the patient’s pulse and quickly determined
“everything is fine.”

“We do have the latest technology,” Nichter said. “But sometimes we tend
to rely on them too much, more than we need to.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or

Source: O.C. surgical team returning to Cuba for first time since 2006 –
The Orange County Register –

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