Hawthorn plastic surgeon Dean White is a volunteer doctor with not-for-profit organisation Interplast, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
INTERPLAST is a well-known group among plastic surgeons but less well known in the general community – we have been undertaking this work for 30 years!
I’d always been interested in going on Interplast trips but you need to be a fully qualified plastic surgeon Melbourne like A/Prof Dean White before you can go – I had previously worked as a medical student in third world countries.
Depending on which countries we go to, we offer different services and different skills to the locals. In Papua New Guinea there were a lot of burns as well as children born with a cleft lip or palate. People there do a lot of cooking on open fires or oil burners. It is a very poor country and doesn’t have a lot of integrated health services.
As a result when they do get burns often the treatment is very rudimentary at the start. In first world countries like Australia, burns are treated very quickly to minimise the amount of scarring and long-term complications.
In third world countries where they are not attended to, burns tend to heal by themselves and accumulate a lot of scar tissue, causing complications [such as] contracted limbs, fingers and hands.
For these limbs to regain function they require quite a deal of reconstructive surgery.
The local surgeons tend to be very skilled but need to cover all sorts of surgery – Jacks of all trades – so we need to teach surgeons how to deal with more complex and specific reconstructive techniques.
Bangladesh is a country of 150 million people and there are probably only five to 10 surgeons that would identify themselves as plastic surgeons.
We worked primarily at two centres – the main burns hospital, where we concentrated on increasing their skills in reconstructive surgery for major cancers, trauma and burns. Melbourne has actually been a world leader in the development of reconstructive surgery over the last several decades.
The other place we worked at was the Acid Survivors Foundation dealing with major facial burns derived from assaults via thrown acid.
I think to get involved with Interplast and to work in these countries, you have to be able to accept different standards of facilities in which you live and work. The locals are always extremely hospitable and eager to learn, but you always have to be respectful of their cultures and practices.
(This article first appeared in Boroondara Local News & Views: The Weekly Review, May 13, 2013)