Interplast: The Rewards of Humanitarianism

by Global Directions Inc., Jul 1, 1998 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Interplast received some very special recognition at this year's Academy Awards when an Oscar was awarded to A Story of Healing, a film that was produced during an Interplast trip to Vietnam. The film documents a team of American medical volunteers who traveled to the Mekong Delta to provide reconstructive surgeries to over 100 Vietnamese children suffering from debilitating birth defects and other crippling injuries.

"Carol and I would like to thank the Academy for recognizing the selfless efforts of the doctors and nurses of Interplast," said filmmaker Donna Dewey as she accepted the Oscar for A Story of Healing, "They have changed the lives of thousands of children all over the world." The film, produced by Carol Pasternak and Donna Dewey of Dewey-Obenchain Films, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Interplast is a nonprofit organization that sends teams of medical volunteers to developing countries to provide free reconstructive surgery to children and share instruction in surgical techniques and related care to host country medical personnel. In January 1997, a film crew followed an Interplast team to An Giang, Vietnam, a remote province in the Mekong Delta, to document the medical team's experience. They treated children born with life-debilitating deformities, primarily cleft lips and cleft palates, and suffering other crippling injuries, generally associated with severe burns. The film crew produced A Story of Healing, a documentary profiling the medical and diplomatic exchange between the American volunteers and Vietnamese medical personnel and offering emotional accounts of the volunteers' experiences with the children whose lives were transformed as a result of the surgeries performed during the trip.

"This is what it is all about; this is why we all become doctors and nurses," comments Dr. Larry Nichter, a reconstructive surgeon from Long Beach, California, who directed Interplast's medical team in An Giang. "You must realize that children with cleft lips are completely ostracized here. They often do not come out of their homes and are not accepted in common life," explains Dr. Nichter. Over 100 children received life-changing surgeries during the trip, and Interplast estimates the value of free medical services provided to be over $800,000.

The documentary was made possible by Dewey-Obenchain Films and grants provided by Mr. Chuck Swanson of the Dr. W.C. Swanson Family Foundation in Ogden, Utah, and Mr. Mark Elconin, CEO of Saratoga Systems, a leading provider of customer management software based in Campbell, California.

Both Swanson and Elconin attended the Academy Awards ceremony on Monday, March 23. "I got to actually put my hands around the statue," Elconin remarked about the coveted Oscar award, "and that was pretty terrific...but the Academy Awards definitely runs second to my experience traveling with an Interplast team -- being allowed to go on a trip with the medical volunteers was extremely rewarding for me."

Chuck Swanson had worked with filmmakers Donna Dewey and Rock Obenchain on several projects in the past, including a documentary entitled Homeboys, which earned the Grand Prize at the Aspen Filmfest and received several awards at various other national and international film festivals. "Our foundation is committed to supporting Interplast because the organization does so much for hundreds of children around the world -- literally changing their lives forever," Swanson explains, "and I felt the Interplast story deserved to be told. I was confident that Dewey-Obenchain could produce a remarkable film capable of communicating the dramatic impact of Interplast's work."

When Mark Elconin joined Interplast's Board of Directors in 1996, he knew that one of the first projects he wanted to support was a documentary film. It was, in fact, a film that had first drawn him to the organization. "I first became aware of Interplast when I saw a story on the television news program '60 Minutes' that documented Interplast's work in Ecuador," Elconin recalls. "I remember being struck by how these volunteers were able to so completely change someone's life--in just a matter of hours, at a cost of something like $500. With a fairly simple surgical procedure, they were able to transform a child who would otherwise be sentenced to a lifetime of physical and emotional suffering."

"I remember thinking that if I were ever in a position to contribute to a nonprofit organization, I would support Interplast. I knew of no other organization that could provide an essentially instantaneous, permanent solution to terrible devastation," notes Elconin. "This notion stuck with me for quite a while...about eight years passed between the time I saw the '60 Minutes' piece and the time I first contacted Interplast, so the video truly had a compelling, long-lasting effect on me." Elconin has since become the organization's most generous individual donor, with his contributions totaling nearly $395,000.

When Interplast began exploring plans to send a film crew along on a trip to Vietnam in early 1997, Elconin quickly agreed to join the Swanson Family Foundation in funding the project. Saratoga Systems, a company founded by Elconin and Al Smith, provided the $29,000 needed to sponsor the An Giang trip itself.

In addition to treating patients during this trip, Interplast volunteers provided training in surgical procedures and related care to Vietnamese surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. It is part of Interplast's mission to foster the free exchange of surgical education and goodwill, assisting host-country medical colleagues toward medical independence. Interplast's emphasis on educational programs during previous trips to Vietnam has proved to be tremendously effective. Interplast first traveled to Vietnam in 1990--a trip made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Newman's Own Foundation established by actor Paul Newman. At that time Interplast began working with pediatric surgeon Dr. Tran Than Trai, who was the head of Ho Chi Minh City's Pediatric Hospital. His medical staff had only rudimentary reconstructive surgery skills and no opportunities for further training. Interplast worked with Dr. Trai to develop training programs for him and his staff, enabling them to become proficient in treating cleft and burn deformities.

Since Interplast first began working with Dr. Trai, he and his staff have performed more than 1,700 successful cleft lip and palate operations independently of Interplast volunteers. Today the hospital in Ho Chi Minh City is better equipped to treat children suffering from such conditions and Interplast has begun working with Dr. Trai to focus efforts on providing surgeries to children in more remote areas of Vietnam.

Dr. Donald Laub, then Chief of Reconstructive and Plastic Surgery at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, founded Interplast (headquartered in Mountain View) in 1969. In the last 29 years, Interplast has sent teams of volunteer reconstructive surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians and nurses to such countries as Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to provide free surgeries to children born with life-debilitating deformities or who have suffered other crippling injuries, most commonly associated with severe burns.

In 1997, Interplast was able to realize the following goals: complete 28 successful trips to developing nations; apply 94% of total annual revenues directly to medical programs; provide 2,300 operations -- at an estimated value of $9.5 million of free medical care; utilize the services of over 400 medical volunteers; and bring seven patients to the United States through Interplast's Domestic Patient Program for operations too complex to be performed in their home countries.