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International Impacts: Mission Trip Treats Underprivileged Children in El Salvador (Photos)

A majority of the patients seen by the physicians at Penn Medicine come from the Philadelphia region, while many others travel across the country to seek treatment. However, in September, D. Scot Malay, DPM, MSCE, director of Podiatric Research at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, travelled to Central America to help underprivileged children from El Salvador who could not make such a trip.

Now in its 22nd year, the medical mission that Malay participated in is sponsored by Rotary International of San Salvador and the medical team members themselves, and is facilitated by Healing the Children, a charitable organization dedicated to providing needed medical care to children around the world, regardless of their ability to pay. This year, Paula Gangopadhyay, DPM, a fourth-year podiatric surgical resident at Penn Presbyterian, also accompanied the mission team. Once in El Salvador, the team evaluated and treated children with congenital and acquired deformities of the lower extremities.

El Salvador is currently one of the more dangerous countries in Central America, plagued by economic depression, and ongoing tensions between the military, city police, and drug-related gangs. The team was escorted at all times by a military guard, even on the 35-minute ride between the hotel and the Central Military Hospital, where the team worked. But despite the dangerous surroundings, the team has remained safe for the past 22 years and continues to help this underserved community.

On day one, the team was met by over 430 children and their families, and the order of treatments ranged from casting and/or bracing to reconstructive surgery. Some of the children with spinal and neurological conditions were referred to other medical missions specializing in such disorders, and follow-up care was arranged with a participating pediatrician and orthopedist stationed in-country.

Over the next four days, the medical team performed more than 50 life-changing operations on children ranging in age from three months to 16 years, including repair of clubfoot and paralytic deformities caused by cerebral palsy and spina bifida, as well as correction of other congenital anomalies and neglected traumas.

“Triaging that many patients in about 10 hours on the first day was no small feat, and once we had identified the candidates for surgery, we had three operating rooms going for the next four days,” Malay said. “We evaluated patients and categorized them as needing bracing, surgery, or referral for other treatments, or combinations thereof. One thing that really helped in this mission was the participation of a pediatrician and an orthopaedic surgeon stationed at the hospital, both of whom were equipped to provide follow-up care for our patients. Their involvement, as well transportation provided by the military for patients living in remote areas of the country, made the mission possible.”

For six days, the team of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and anesthetists, OR technicians, orthotists, and support staff, performed procedure after procedure, triaged and rounded patients, changed casts and dressings, and worked to ensure the safe recovery of each and every patient. The group was even visited by numerous patients and their families who had been treated in years past, and who were eager to show their progress.

Malay was visited by two patients he had treated on his first mission trip in 2013, and noted that some of the mission surgeons who had been visiting El Salvador for many years were able to meet with their patients, and watch as they grew from infants to young adolescents. Over the past 22 years, more than 1,000 children have been treated by the mission teams in El Salvador.

On the final day, the team rounded the children who remained in the hospital, finalized discharge plans, and said their farewells.

“Saying goodbye to the families was a particularly special experience,” Malay said. “They were sincerely thankful for how we had helped their children and their community, and I look forward to visiting with them when I return on the next mission to El Salvador.”

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