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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

-- Photos by Patricia Lefevere

A sculpture of feet and ankles in a ballet position in Dr. Chet Evan's office.
Helping kids stand on two good feet

Miami Shores, Fla.

“Nobody stands taller than he who stoops to help a child.” The man whose words those are -- Dr. Charles Southerland Jr. -- has experienced this truth up close and often.

For the past 11 years Southerland has directed a team of podiatric doctors and surgeons and podiatric residents who have made 56 trips to Mexico, helping over 5,000 indigent crippled children to walk.

When the Barry University podiatric surgeon and professor of podiatric medicine arrives with his team in Merida, capital of Yucatán, parents and children form lines three to four blocks long, waiting in the tropical heat to consult with one of the visiting doctors.

The podiatrists generally arrive Thursday evening, consult with patients Friday and perform surgeries for 12 to 15 hours on Saturday -- often operating in a room with no air conditioning. On Sunday they screen some 50 people, evaluating them for twisted limbs, clubfoot, underdeveloped muscle and other lower extremity deformities that impede their ability to walk.

There is never a shortage of patients, the returning doctors report. The queue of children for future operations is always longer than the time available to see all who wait. “These kids are born at home and never see a doctor,” said Dr. Chet Evans, vice president for medical affairs and dean of Barry’s School of Graduate Medical Sciences.

Mariselly Rivero and Dr. Chet Evans

At the time of surgery, the Barry team utilizes a local anesthetist and the pre- and postoperative services of Mexican podiatrists and orthopedic physicians, whom they train in the latest surgical procedures. One of these procedures, the Ilizarov Method, is a corrective surgical technique the Florida podiatrists learned from Russian physicians. It is less invasive, results in faster recovery and causes less discomfort, Evans said.

While more than 75 doctors and 50 residents have volunteered some 20,000 hours to the Yucatán Crippled Children’s Project, some even paying their own way on the 90-minute flight from Miami to Merida, the school continues to look to foundations, corporations and persons in the medical field for funding. The trips cost an average of $2,500 and occur five or six times each year. Six trips have already been scheduled for 2008 with Southerland heading the surgical team in January and September.

Mexican families and patients receiving treatment are responsible for payment adjusted to their economic and familial circumstances. Fees are charged only for the expenses of this nonprofit endeavor -- not for the benefit of any doctor or medical personnel. Financially disadvantaged families may be asked to do volunteer assignments in lieu of paying a fee.

Southerland, who was out of town when NCR visited the medical campus in Miami, sees the Yucatán project as “a personal and professional mission,” said Evans, who called the ex-Special Forces officer a “very driven, multitasker,” known for his generosity.

The podiatrist drew inspiration for the project after learning of a similar endeavor, based in Southern California, which has since the late 1970s brought medical care to crippled youngsters in Baja California, a part of Mexico. His proposal to advance similar work in the Yucatán began as an outgrowth of humanitarian relief in 1988 after Hurricane Gilbert tore through the region, killing 500 people and leaving vast destruction. The project was delayed when, four years later, Hurricane Andrew struck Southern Florida. In its wake demands for local medical resources left no spare capacity for missions abroad.

But Southerland prevailed. He set up visits with Mexican government officials and with the mayor of Progreso, a city near Merida where surgeries are performed. Political turnover in Mexico City meant having to work with a new national health minister.

Finally in 1996 the humanitarian and academic program was launched, marking the start of cooperation between Barry physicians and those in Mexico who assist them. Besides the thrill of helping crippled kids walk and have a chance for a normal life, Evans said the project offers unique opportunities for U.S. podiatrists and residents to treat medical conditions that are usually treated by orthopedic surgeons in this country during the first months or years of a child’s life. The project also provides important research for medical care in developing countries.

Mariselly Rivero, who coordinates the trips and who lived three years in Progreso, knows the deprivation of area families personally.

“Any effort, large or small, that I can contribute toward the project ensures a difference is being made to children who otherwise would have gone through life without knowing the freedom of mobility,” she told NCR. With this mindset, she said, she “wholeheartedly performs each task involved in making the trips to Merida a reality.”

One of the bright spots in the ongoing job of fundraising for the effort has come from Aeromexico which flies the team to Merida and transports eight to 10 crates of surgical equipment, bandages, IVs, power cords, medicines and anesthesia on each mission. Normally shipments cost an extra $400 to $500 per trip. Recently the airline granted a waiver and flies the extra cargo at no extra cost. Goods not used during one trip are stored locally and available to Mexican doctors for postoperative care.

Both Evans and Rivero regret they cannot help all who seek the aid of the foot doctors. Aware of the vast need for such treatment across the Third World, Evans said: “We can help fix the tree, but we can’t fix the whole forest.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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