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Dr. Geoff Williams

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Dr. Geoff Williams, 52, doesn't meet the stereotype of a plastic surgeon. He worries about money, doesn't really have a permanent home and his patients pay him in mangoes and chickens.

As the founder of the International Children's Surgical Foundation, Williams spends most of his time operating for free in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Peru, Mexico, India and Thailand. Wherever he goes, Williams helps children suffering from cleft lips and palates, burns and an assortment of facial deformities.

The Boise native has been at it for years. He took time out on one of his brief visits home to talk to BW about his work.

How did you get started?

I went to Taiwan to get some extra training in the treatment of children's facial deformities. When I was there, the Taiwanese team of doctors organized a charity mission to south Vietnam to treat kids with cleft lips and palates, and they invited me.

When we got to the hospital, we went to the gymnasium and it was packed with about 200 mothers and their babies.

We were only able to treat 20 or 30 of those kids on that trip, because we weren't expecting a number so huge. We had to leave all those kids untreated and I remember feeling really sad about that and saying, "one day I want to do more to help the developing world." That experience really opened my eyes to the plight of children born with these kinds of deformities in developing countries. It's really difficult for them to find treatment, often due to a lack of doctors who know how to do these surgeries. Sometimes there are doctors in larger cities who can do them, but they have to pay, and a lot of these poor kids don't have any money to pay for the surgery.

Why specialize in kids?

In my residency training, I was at a center that we saw a lot of severely burned children and children with severe cleft deformities. I was in the University of Texas, and we were a referral center for a large part of the Southeast actually, not only for those other states, but children from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

How did this turn into a full-time job?

I just went to a university [in India] to do some teaching, and while I was there, a few kids showed up, and one kid actually came from Nepal, the neighboring country. He was 26. and he'd never had any treatment. I had several experiences that just told me, "Wow, there's a real need out there in the developing world."

I was invited back to Galveston, Texas, to be the faculty plastic surgeon. During that time, I just decided I needed to keep volunteering as much as my time would allow me. It was usually just one or two times per year. Sometimes I had to use my vacation. But all that time, on those one or two trips per year, I just felt like I didn't quite get the job done; there were too many kids. And before long, I just decided I really wanted to do this full-time.

Why did you start your foundation?

When I first started volunteering, I thought I was going to volunteer full time for a couple of years and then come back to the United States and start a practice and keep going again. After a couple of years, I just thought, "I really can't stop doing this. I just need to keep doing this."

I was depleting my savings quite a bit, and so in December 2005, we started the International Children's Surgical Foundation so I could keep on doing this. And not only that, but make it grow and involve other doctors.

Where does your funding come from?

It's just coming from private donors, people who just say they'd like to donate. One of our most successful programs is going to the schools. We have a program designed especially for the schools.

Is it nice to see kids taking interest?

The kids are really our main hope at this point in time. They seem to really understand. They know what it's like to maybe be picked on, or teased, and when they see these poor kids in other countries with these horrible deformities, I think they really want to pitch in and help.

How often are you able to come home?

In 2007, I was gone 10 months out of the year. I come home, it seems, about every two months for a week or two.

What other cases do you see?

We see a lot of burn deformities, too. By burn deformities, I mean pretty severe deformities. There's a little girl on our Web site, she had a severely burned neck where there was a contraction process that was making it impossible for her to eat or speak, and we did surgery for her.

And there are some other more rare deformities. In our last newsletter we featured a man in Pakistan who had a condition called Elephant Man's Syndrome, where he gets a massive overgrowth on one side of his face. We treat things like that, too.

Do you work with the local doctors?

That's one area where I think we're unique. Most of the other organizations take a large team and they go and kind of take the hospital over for a week. We really think it's important to train those local doctors in those areas because they're the best-fitted health professionals to take care of those patients.

What's the best part of your job?

Right after the surgeries, to see the reaction of the mothers, when they see their child come back. A lot of times, I think these mothers and some fathers, too, think that when they have a child born with a cleft deformity that they'll never receive treatment because they're poor and they're in a poor part of the world.

When we finally come and actually do the surgery, it's an overwhelming experience for some. We've had a lot of the mothers break down in tears, thank us, or try to pay us with mangoes. One mother tried to pay me with a chicken, a live chicken that was all wrapped up and she tried to hand it to me­­­.

What's the hardest part?

Actually, the hardest part is probably the fundraising. Sometimes, I think we kind of live by faith from month to month. I'm looking ahead at 2009, and wondering where we're going to get the money to do this. It seems like things always open up and happen for us.

For more information on the International Children's Surgical Foundation, visit icsfoundation.org.

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