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Jan 17, 2018 10:30 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Medical Missionaries With Southampton Roots Open Eye Hospital In Nepal

Team Michigan prepares to leave for Mount Kilimanjaro. COURTESTY OPERATION INTERNATIONAL
Jan 23, 2018 2:58 PM

Several dozen Nepali men, women and children cling to the backs of family members, slowly and unsteadily making their way down the steep Himalayan mountains near Bhakunde Besi, Nepal’s poorest district, with a population of more than 600,000.Their eyes wrapped in surgical gauze, and their fingers intertwined with those carrying them at more than 3,000 feet above sea level, they were returning to their homes after receiving treatment for a variety of eye diseases—common ailments caused by the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.

The men, women and children were returning from a small three-room hospital only recently established in their country by Southampton’s own medical nonprofit, Operation International, working in partnership with a similar organization called Dooley Intermed of Forest Hills.

Since opening its doors in Nepal in early December, the Dooley Intermed-Operation Restore Vision eye center has treated more than 800 Nepalese by offering routine eye exams, and 71 patients have undergone surgeries to remove cataracts and other oculoplastic procedures to restore their eyesight.

Chinja Ghale, a 65-year-old Nepali woman who was blind for three years prior to undergoing surgery in December, is now able to see colors and walk unassisted, according to an online report by Jeff Blumenfeld, Dooley Intermed’s media contact.

Operation International was founded, as International Surgical Mission Support, in 1996 by three men: Dr. Medhat Allam, a general and bariatric surgeon at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital; Dr. Robert Mineo, a nurse anesthetist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital; and Dr. Ravi Kothuru, chief of thoracic surgery at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn.

The opening of a new eye care center in Nepal, an undertaking dubbed the “Adventure Team” project, was one of nine missions completed in December alone by Operation International, a new name for the former ISMS. The organization’s mission is to provide free medical care and educational training to underserved countries around the world.

With eight medical teams—based in New York, Michigan, Maryland and Los Angeles—Operation International is able to offer a variety of medical services, including pediatric care, orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery, gynecology, dental care and more around the world.

“We went from only doing surgery to everything else,” Dr. Allam said during a recent interview, noting that each mission takes roughly nine days to complete and typically serves, on average, between 100 and 150 patients. “This is a full-fledged team that can do just about anything.”

Hence the name change from International Surgical Mission Support to Operation International: “It became more than surgery,” Dr. Allam explained.

The 57-year-old surgeon’s first mission was to Haiti in 1997. Accompanied by co-founders Dr. Mineo and Dr. Kothuru, they performed innovative general, pediatric, gynecological, plastic and reconstructive procedures on hundreds of patients suffering from conditions that Dr. Allam couldn’t find words to describe.

“When I saw the extreme poverty, is was just, like, ‘Wow.’ This is above and beyond …” recalled Dr. Allam, who lives in Southampton. “It was the eye-opener for me.”

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Dr. Mineo added in a separate interview. “We figured we’d find out when we got there.”

Dr. Mineo, who also lives in Southampton, recalled a surgery from his first mission to Ghana in 1997: A patient’s pelvis was so severely damaged from a hernia that he had family members, one on each side of him, carry his scrotum in plastic shopping bags.

“How can you go about your day like that?” Dr. Mineo asked. “You can’t.”

Since then the organization has rapidly expanded, helping thousands of patients in places such as Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Ecuador, Uganda and the Philippines.

“The gratitude that we get from these missions … it keeps me going for the rest of the year,” added Dr. Kothuru, who lives in New York City.

Dr. Allam explained that Team NY recently spent nine days in Ghana helping children suffering from sickle cell disease, or SCD—an inherited blood disorder that transforms round blood cells into misshapen cells that can easily get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow.

Rose Wiseman, a registered nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and a member of Team NY, explained that during her team’s time in Ghana they came across dozens of children sleeping outside of hospitals, unable to go home because their parents could not pay their medical bills. Operation International officials banded together to pay thousands of dollars of medical bills for those children to return to their families.

“It was just by chance that we came upon it and we were able to send those children home,” Ms. Wiseman said. “It makes you think about life [and] how lucky we are to live on this side of the world.”

In 2016, BioMedomics, a North Carolina diagnostics company, developed a test strip, called the Sickle SCAN, which indicates whether a patient is a carrier of SCD, according to its website. The test requires a small amount of a patient’s blood that is then applied to a test strip, similar to a pregnancy test, to detect the presence of hemoglobins A, S and C, allowing the user to rapidly distinguish between normal, carrier and sickle cell samples.

“Now we can test kids immediately upon birth for sickle cell, so down the road, when they have symptoms, there is no confusion about the diagnosis,” Dr. Allam said.

Every month, several thousand Sickle SCAN test kits are delivered to area hospitals in Ghana, where more than 120,000 children die from SCD every year, according to Dr. Frank Wang, co-founder of BioMedomics.

He added that although there is no cure for SCD, if detected early, medicine known as hydroxyurea can be administered to reduce the number of sickle cells in newborns, vastly increasing their chances of survival. “This is a huge issue and we provide a very unique solution,” Dr. Wang said.

Another ongoing project by Operation International is called Project GypSEAS—a collaborative effort between the organization’s eight teams whose goal is to help educate the Sama Dilaut tribe of Davao City in the Philippines using a three-cycle system.

Cycle one focuses on teaching children ages 10 through 12 the importance of proper hygiene, such as how to brush their teeth and dispose of solid waste.

“In the western world, we take a lot of things for granted, like owning a toothbrush,” said Nilesh Patel, one of the co-founders of Operation International’s Dental Team. “Some people have never seen a toothbrush, let alone know what a toothbrush is.”

Cycles two and three teach children of all ages literacy skills, like how to write their name, as well as the importance of caring for the environment. By planting trees, children are taught patience, consistency and perseverance, according to an end-of-the-year report prepared by Marti Clarabal, head of Human Resources for Project GypSEAS.

In the Philippines, the Sama Dilaut, a majority Muslim tribe, are labeled by the community as thieves and tramps, and, therefore, are typically shunned by almost everyone, according to Operation International’s website. “Because of the fact that they are gypsies, they are the most marginalized and malnourished kids,” Dr. Allam said, adding that Operation International has also raised funds to finance a five-year feeding program for those tribe members.

Dr. Allam explained that with nine missions scheduled for this year, members of each of the organization’s teams are responsible for raising their own funds. For example, six members of Team Michigan are currently raising funds for their next mission to Ghana by participating in a charity climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro–the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet. In three months the team has collected $4,535, all of which will go toward purchasing supplies, medical equipment and medicine for their upcoming mission. Team members support themselves to climb the mountain.

Others simply request donations on social media and on the organization’s website, www.operationinternational.org.

To help finance Nepal’s new eye hospital, Operation International representatives raised $150,000 in donations, according to organizers.

“If people in the Hamptons can realize that there is a local organization that does great work and impacts many lives in poor countries, we can start making a difference,” Dr. Allam said.

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