A teen from Laos takes her first step in 14 years, thanks to an alum’s pioneering plastic surgery foundation.
As an infant, May fell into a cooking fire, which bent her left leg at the knee and welded her shin with her thigh. She grew up dependent on a rough-hewn crutch until, at 14, she left her home in the Laotian mountains in search of a miracle. May traveled for three days by bus and canoe, and on the fourth day, she hobbled down a long road toward the Hôpital Provincial de Luang Prabang where the Plasticos Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded and headed by leading plastic surgeon Larry Nichter (CGS’71, CAS’73, MED’78), was performing free surgery to correct birth defects and disfigurements caused by burns.
In Laos, as in many other less-developed countries, these disfigurements are considered God’s punishment, and so children like May are ostracized, leading isolated lives without hope for marriage or careers. May was one of thousands of Laotians who arrived at the Hôpital Provincial de Luang Prabang in January 2009 for the chance to be treated by the Plasticos team, which selected approximately 95 patients to receive life-changing plastic surgery.
“No matter how many surgeries we do, we can’t keep up with the production of these problems,” says Nichter, whose 1997 surgery mission to Vietnam was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary A Story of Healing. To date, Nichter has undertaken more than 60 missions, overseeing the treatment of 3,000 patients.
“Plasticos only goes on missions where we train surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, and nurses,” Nichter says. “We equip the country’s medical team so they can do surgeries when we’re gone. In this very moment, there are 50 to 100 surgeons I’ve trained who are doing surgeries they otherwise would never have known how to do. When I went back to Vietnam, for instance, I asked someone I trained three years previously how many cleft lips he had done, and he said, ‘Oh, about a thousand.’ He performed more in three years than I’ll probably do in my lifetime. That is humbling and gratifying.”
Compassion has always been part of Nichter’s philosophy, both in his work with Plasticos, and at the Pacific Center for Plastic Surgery in Huntington Beach, California, which he cofounded. He is the chairman of plastic surgery at Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, California, one of the largest plastic surgical departments in the world, and clinical professor of plastic surgery at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine. Nichter’s surgical skills and warm manner with patients have brought him national recognition; he has been featured in many publications, including U.S. News & World Report and Orange County Register, as well as on television and radio. Orange Coast Magazine has named him one of “The Best Plastic Surgeons in Orange County” every year since 1996.
For Nichter, the real reward is bringing hope to his patients and training other surgeons to engage in this vital work, like the procedure that straightened May’s leg. May smiled at him from the hospital cot where she was recovering from a successful surgery. “She feel really happy for getting your help,” the translator told the Plasticos team. “She thinks that if you did not come here, she has no chance to be treated, forever. In the next life, she will remember your help.” Supported by Plasticos volunteers, May gingerly placed her left foot on the ground for the first time in more than a decade.
Click here to watch May take her first step.
Larry Nichter’s dedication to BU earned him the CGS Distinguished Alumni Award in 2012.