A Lecture Leads to Life-Changing Cleft Palate Repair Mission in Colombia

Erik Harriman DMD 14 with Colombian boy
Erik Harriman DMD 14 with Colombian boy

To Erik Harriman DMD 14, cleft lip and palate repair surgery is, “one of the most profound ways [dentists] can impact people, especially in the third world.” Thus, when Dr. Lawrence Herman gave a guest lecture on cleft lip and palate in one of Harriman’s classes and talked about his regular participation in volunteer oral surgery missions, Harriman was exceptionally attentive. Dr. Herman—a faculty member of both Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine—emphasized the responsibility that dentists have to give back to people who are underserved.

Inspired by the lecture, Harriman approached Dr. Herman to offer his assistance as a volunteer in any way he could. The eventual outcome was Harriman accepting an offer to accompany Dr. Herman on a mission to Apartado, Colombia, to assist in surgeries to repair the cleft lips and palates of people who lack access to proper medical care for the condition. The trip was headed by the non-profit organization Healing the Children, whose mission is to extend medical care to all children.

Between April 13 and 21, 2013, Harriman assisted with about 35 surgeries during the mission in Colombia. The oral surgeons performed cleft lip, cleft palate, alveolar cleft, pharyngeal flap, lip revisions, and rhinoplasty surgeries. Harriman assisted the oral surgeons during surgery and the anesthesiologist in inducting and maintaining general anesthesia throughout the procedures.

Several of the 149 families who visited the mission clinic traveled on foot. And for some, it was the farthest they had been in their life.

Harriman was surprised by the relatively large portion of adults with untreated cleft lip and palates: about 30% of those treated were over the age of 14. In the United States, children who are born with the facial abnormality caused by the non-fusion of natural body structures during gestation have access to a series of surgeries to repair the lip and palate. These steps toward repair begin when they are infants.

The condition can lead to many other health issues, including trouble with speech and hearing and also with eating. Many of the patients that Harriman saw at the clinic were suffering from these secondary problems.

GSDM resident Jingyi He OMFS 13 also participated in the mission. Harriman reports that he found her a great help and that, since the trip, she has acted as a mentor.

Though the trip involved travel, it could not be described as a vacation. Harriman assisted at the clinic from 7 a.m. to about 9 p.m. During that time, he had many conversations about anatomy with the surgeons, absorbing as much knowledge as possible.

“A life changing experience” is how Harriman describes his mission trip to Colombia, something that he will remember for the rest of his life. He hopes that it will mark a turning point as he sets his sights on specializing in oral surgery. Harriman said, “I know it’ll make a big impact on my decisions from here forward.”

Apart from a story about the significant positive impact that oral health care professionals can have on people in underserved populations, let this also be a lesson to never miss class—it might be a life changing event.

Photos are available on Facebook and Flickr.