Saving smiles: Doctor helps transform a life during mission trip
It was an uneventful day near the end of a medical mission in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, where the team of volunteer doctors, nurses and support staff had been offering free clinics and surgeries for locals. Dr. Tracy Tran, a Los Angeles native, then in her third year of a family medicine residency at Kansas University Medical Center, was on her first mission with Medical Missions Foundation.
The Kansas City-based nonprofit organization sends teams to developing countries to provide life-changing and lifesaving surgeries to children who would otherwise not have access to that kind of care.
On this day, Tran, who saw 25 to 30 patients daily, turned her attention to 9- and 10-year-old sisters who were brought in by their mother for a routine physical. The older sister was examined first and given a clean bill of health. The younger sister, Aricella, seemed nervous as it became her turn to be examined. She was visibly shaking and had watery eyes. She had to be coaxed by her older sister to approach the examining table and sit. Tran asked Aricella’s name and the girl wouldn’t answer, so her sister answered for her. Their mother told Tran that Aricella is unable to speak normally and, as a result, does not attend school. Finally, a weak “Aricella” was heard from the girl. Her eyes were filled with fresh tears. Tran asked “Does it hurt to talk?” The girl nodded.
Tran noted that Aricella was unable to lift her tongue to touch the roof her mouth. She also was unable to move her tongue laterally without pain. Tran noticed the girl’s frenulum lingua, oral tissue found under the tongue, was taut and shorter than usual, limiting movement of her tongue. Aricella’s mother said she had taken her to doctors before who said she needed surgery. A frenulectomy, also known as tongue-tie surgery, is a simple procedure with a clip of the frenulum with surgical scissors — something Tran normally would do on a newborn in the office. A tight frenulum can cause difficulties in feeding and children may develop lisps and/or speech impediments if not corrected.
Tran told the family something could be done. “Do you want us to help take care of this today?” The girl nodded and the mother agreed. Together they walked upstairs to find the ENT team and asked Dr. Douglas Girod if he would take a look and do a frenulectomy. Girod, a surgeon and head of KU Medical Center’s Department of Otolaryngology, is a member of the Medical Missions Foundation Board of Trustees.
At dinner, the volunteer doctors and others shared stories of the day, and Girod congratulated Tran on a good day’s work, especially with Aricella. He completed the frenulectomy, and an hour later he observed her talking, laughing and running around with her friends.
Tran says she was giddy. “It was a moment of pure satisfaction and a reminder of why I have spent most of my life striving to become a doctor. To provide care to those in need and simply make their lives easier.”
Tran, an emergency room physician for Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe, Mo., also works shifts at Emergent Care Plus in Lee’s Summit. The timing of her mission and the impact it made on her is something she encourages others to experience.
“Everyone seems to think that when we go on missions, it’s this selfless act. It’s not. It’s completely selfish on my part. I like the feeling I get from affecting someone else’s life for the better. In life, we’re all looking for a balance. When I go home and take the coat off, I’m just Tracy, not Dr. Tran. It’s sometimes hard to flip back and forth, and this experience reminded me of what it really means to be a doctor and why I love doing what I do,” she says. “With the stress of residency, time spent on a medical mission allows you to just be and do. I would recommend it to all my colleagues and anyone who has the time to travel. It will always be an invaluable experience.”
For Aricella, a three-minute procedure impacted the rest of her life and the lives of her family. She could return to school and no longer have to rely on her sister to function in the world. Who knew a tiny snip of tissue could so readily free a little girl? Tran did and she was happy to oblige.
Since 1996, the Medical Missions Foundation has completed 62 missions in 12 countries and has touched the lives of more than 41,000 children and their families through clinics and surgeries.
Medical Missions Foundation hosts “Noche for Niños” on Friday, April 13 at Terrace on Grand, 1520 Grand, Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are $50 and include music, drinks and food. All proceeds benefit the foundation’s work in Latin American countries. For more information, visit www.mmfworld.org.