Humanitarian Travel Grant: Cleft Care in Kijabe, Kenya

December 2020/January 2021 – Vol. 39, No. 11

Heather A. Koehn, MD

For the past 20 years, teams of otolaryngologists have provided continuous cleft care for patients in Kijabe, Kenya, through Samaritan’s Purse World Medical Mission and partnering with IAC-CURE Children’s Hospital and Smile Train. Our team of physicians consisted of Lisa M. Buckmiller, MD (pediatric otolaryngology, San Antonio, Texas), Charles W. Ford, MD (otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, Boone, North Carolina), John J. Christophel, MD, MPH (otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, Charlottesville, Virginia), Patrick D. Munson, MD, (pediatric otolaryngology, Sioux Falls, South Dakota), Ryan H. Belcher, MD (pediatric otolaryngology, Nashville, Tennessee), and Ashley D. Baracz, MD (pediatric anesthesiology, San Antonio, Texas).

With the support of the AAO-HNSF Humanitarian Travel Grant, I was able to serve with this team of talented surgeons and compassionate caregivers. It is humbling to see how a short surgery can provide such a profound difference in a patient’s life. Of the 72 surgeries that were performed over five days, one patient’s story will not be forgotten. Jackline is a 22-year-old mother of three who traveled to Kijabe from a rural Maasai village. She was brought by a local missionary who heard of our team’s visit to provide cleft surgery free of charge. She was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. She existed in her community, constantly keeping her lower face covered because of the deformity. She was the only person in her village with a cleft. Once arriving at the AIC-CURE Children’s Hospital campus, she saw the many children with clefts and immediately felt a sense of community and trust and uncovered her face. She underwent bilateral cleft lip surgery with our team. Two days later she left the hospital with a big smile and no covering on her face.  She is pictured with her three-month-old baby and friend from her village as well as her surgeon team, Dr. Christophel, and me.

There is a lasting impression of this opportunity to provide cleft care as an otolaryngologist internationally. As a future pediatric otolaryngologist, I hope to establish a long-term service relationship like the team I was privileged to join and inspire others to do the same.