Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

In pursuit of a smile

How far would you travel to make a child smile? John Huggard, HN '80, is willing to go the distance. Last May, the anesthetist traveled to El Salvador with a team of fellow medical professionals and volunteers who bring health care to thousands of needy c hildren in Central and South American countries.

Huggard is a member of the board of advisers for S.M.A.R.T. (Surgical and Medical Assistance Relief Team). The organization deploys a team of volunteers four or five times a year to perform primarily cleft lip and palate surgeries on children.

In Central and South America, children born with cleft lips and palates are sometimes referred to as "monster babies" by members of their communities, Teresa Searcy, co-founder of S.M.A.R.T., explains. "The parents believe that it's a curse from God, that they are being punished for something they have done in their lives."

"These children generally live with the disfigurement all their lives, often ostracized from regular society and unable to attend school. They are robbed of the life that most of us take for granted," says Huggard, who is chief anesthetist at Halifax Memo rial Hospital in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

If a child's face is severely disfigured, several surgeries may be needed, but each one improves the child's quality of life, he says. In Central America, it has been reported that one out of every 300 children is born with a cleft lip and palate. Doctors believe the environment and inbreeding are contributing factors, Huggard says.

"In Third World countries, the resources and medical expertise just don't exist," says Huggard, who has been on 12 S.M.A.R.T. missions. "It is truly heartrending to have a mother drop to her knees and thank you for giving her child a life. I have shed man y tears on S.M.A.R.T. missions to Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico and El Salvador."

A typical S.M.A.R.T. team is composed of 30 to 40 people, with many of the volunteers sponsored by churches or local civic organizations. Most of the equipment is donated by hospitals across the U.S. Medical personnel on the team include three surgeons, t hree anesthetists and several nurses. Non-medical volunteers on the team hold babies, mop floors, set up supplies and stay in the recovery room.

"All the members of S.M.A.R.T. are volunteers. Not one person is salaried. Each pays his own expenses, which amount to about $1,200 per trip," Huggard says.

"Once you see the faces of these children, it is well worth it. It's touching to hear that parents have trekked for several days in hopes that their child will get treated. They may come from very isolated areas, but they do what it takes to have their ch ild healed," he says.

Even if people can't join the S.M.A.R.T. volunteer team, they can still sponsor a surgery and receive letters from that child. "For a $300 contribution, a supporter can take away a birth defect and give a child a lifelong smile," he says.

"It's nonstop work while you are there," Huggard adds. "It only takes a weekend out of your life, but it's a weekend you will never forget."

-Terry Conway