Alumnus brings medical expertise to Peru

Although August is a busy month for Dr. David Janssen ’81 of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a board-certified plastic surgeon with Fox Valley Plastic Surgery, he answered the call when he was contacted by Women for World Health.

Janssen traveled with the organization to Peru for 10 days during the high point of the South American winter season to serve medical needs of people there.

At first, he had declined going, thinking he would wait a few years. But after a different surgeon backed out of the trip, Janssen was told that if he could not go, the entire team would be unable to go.

“This whole team of 18 people needed me,” he said “I spent two days not sleeping at night. I woke up one morning a 1:21 a.m., and I said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ The truth is, I felt called and maybe guilty. There were lives that would not be changed if I decided not to go.”

The trip was a challenge. The location in the middle of Andes Mountains at 11,000 feet. Part of the trip was by pickup truck, traveling beside steep cliffs at a fast pace. “It was nerve-wracking,” Janssen says. Not everyone acclimated well to the altitude, and “it was tough on our team. We were taking care of each other at times.”

Having completed a pediatric fellowship at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Janssen was ready to perform cleft palate surgeries in Peru. But the doctors saw an array of conditions, ranging from burns to facial deformities. One woman, Nelida, had been living with her chin stuck to her neck for 30 years as a result of a burn she sustained when she was 2 years old.

Frustrating roadblocks included governmental controls, supply shortages, translation and communication. Patients had to walk to a pharmacy downtown to secure supplies for their own surgeries.

But when they finally got started on the surgeries, the work was rewarding, Janssen says. “They were interesting and challenging. You deal with whatever comes through the door. There were people burned as very small children stumbling into local fires that they cook over. There were hand burns, cleft lip and palate. The country’s healthcare is free, but if you’re poor you just don’t get it. I wasn’t quite ready for that. If we didn’t do the surgeries, nobody else was going to.”

Each day, the team started at 7 a.m. and worked until 10 p.m. In all, Janssen and his team treated 77 people in clinics and in tents. Some patients had traveled 10 hours to be seen.

Janssen says he didn’t have the time to do the kind of post-op checkups he does in the United States, and “sometimes you can’t tell if it was going to work or not,” he says.

Even leaving was an adventure. They were on the last flight out before a 6.9 earthquake hit the country.

Janssen says he enjoys his work as a plastic surgeon. “I get the opportunity to do fun and interesting things, I get paid well most of the time, and I enjoy helping patients improve physically and emotionally,” he says. “At the Oshkosh, Ripon and Berlin hospitals, I’m on call. Some people do not have money or the ability to pay, and that becomes a mission I do here.

“Do you need to go to Peru to do a mission? No, but it’s good to sometimes go away, to recognize how fortunate we are. It is always interesting to get a different perspective, and you get a new appreciation for things we often take for granted, like heat and running water. I feel people who have been blessed have an obligation to be a blessing to others.”

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