In a place where life rarely grants a second chance, physical deformity can alter everything from social status to marriage prospects. That is why hope, when it does come, is so greatly prized.
In March, a group of leading surgeons, nurses and medical technicians will leave the comfort of their homes and jobs in the East Riding and head for one of the poorest regions on earth.
A team from the Hull-based, Overseas Plastic Surgery Appeal (OPSA) is bound for Gujrat, an industrial city in Pakistan, where they will perform life-changing operations, mostly on children, young adults and women. An indication of how valuable, the OPSA clinics are is that patients will often spend days travelling hundreds of miles to get treatment; they may be Afghan refugees or from Karachi, 800 miles to the south. To give people a chance to attend, locals will often visit remote villages to announce OPSA’s impending arrival, and the team has also appeared on Pakistani TV and radio to encourage others. The need is so great that more people are turned away than accepted. The most frequently performed operations are to repair cleft lips and palates, a condition affecting about one out of every 600 births.
In the hands of a skilled Surgeon, it can be repaired quickly and with dramatic results. In the UK they are routinely corrected within three to six months – in places like Gujrat, unless you are rich, the operation is simply not available. Last year in Gujrat an OPSA team operated on 140 children in a week in Hull there might be 20 such operations in a year.
For the OPSA team, it is a 12 hour day of intense and exacting work with only a break for lunch. But the results are motivation enough and for the patients, it is not just self-esteem and self-confidence that is restored. Nick Hart, consultant plastic surgeon and OPSA chairman, said: “It affects smiling, eating, drinking, speech and social development and people often think it’s down to a curse. “You are dealing with people who, really you are their only hope. They haven’t got anything else apart from yourself; there’s no NHS or welfare state. “Somebody born with a deformity has to sink or swim, and we are helping them to swim.” The condition is partly hereditary and is more prevalent in Pakistan because there are more marriages between cousins and relatives.
Not all disfigurements the surgeons deal with are accidents of birth. There are a lot of burns injuries because of widespread use of kerosene stoves for cooking. Victims live with the results for years, such as contractures, where the skin has tightened and restricted movement, leaving sufferers unable to lift their head or stretch their arms. Other injuries have more sinister origins. Acid attacks or other violent attempts to mutilate women are a common result of jealousy or other perceived slights, but again the charity can give victims a chance to rebuild their lives. “Society and family rules are very strictly interpreted and sometimes they can be rigidly enforced,” said Mr Hart.
One woman they treated had had her nose cut off with a sword. But often it is working with children that provide the most rewarding results. Mr Hart, 59, said: “There was one child Mr Muhammad Riaz operated on who didn’t have a nose, and he gave that child a nose. He just had a pair of nostrils, and he made him 100 percent better.”
Mr Hart, who has visited Gujrat at least once a year since 1998, said the charity’s work had provided some of the highlights of his career. “You feel you are doing something very worthwhile,” he said. “We don’t go for our gratification, but we get a tremendous feeling of satisfaction with what we do. “The Pakistani people are beautiful, and we are very well looked after when we go.”
Charity depends on fundraising
The Overseas Plastic Surgery Appeal (OPSA) was formed in 2006, although some of its members have been working in Pakistan and India for more than a decade. The purpose of the charity is to provide a specialist surgical team to undertake reconstructive surgical procedures on babies, young children, and young adults in Third World countries, all of whom are impoverished and have no other recourse to treatment. These procedures are predominantly on cleft lip and palate conditions, hand deformities and burns contractures. Surgery contributes massively to improving their quality of life.
The charity aims to send teams out to an area of need at least once a year but is dependent on fundraising to support this work. Funding is required for travel, medical and surgical equipment and drugs and the average cost of a one-week trip is about £10,000. Long-term supporters of OPSA include Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Spire Hospital Hull and East Riding, the Medical International Aid Trust, Ethicon, Britannia Storage, David Lister School, Humber Rotary and Lions’ Clubs and private donors.