(WHAM) - The doctors and nurses on a HUGS mission pay their own way to work hard for a week in Guatemala, one of Central America's poorest countries.
And yet, they say, it's not a sacrifice.
"It's a benefit I tell you," said Dr. Neal Goldman, a surgeon from North Carolina. "Don't kid yourself, I gain from this much more than I lose. No question about it."
Dr. Goldman, and other volunteers on last month's HUGS annual mission in Guatemala, spent the week repairing facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates, and microtia, a deformity of the ear. The HUGS (Help Us Give Smiles) Foundation was founded by Rochester surgeon Dr. Vito Quatela.
Many of the other surgeons on HUGS missions served fellowships under Dr. Quatela, and have chosen to help him carry on his charitable work. Some go on missions several times per year. In addition to Guatemala, HUGS does annual trips to Vietnam and Ecuador, all countries with a higher incidence of congenital facial deformities.
"As soon as you get here, you re-orient your priorities and just focus on the purpose and the reason why you're here," says Dr. David Lieberman, who practices in California. "And then as soon as the last day comes you say, 'I'm coming back.'"
Sandy Shannon, a member of Dr. Quatela's staff at his East Avenue surgery center, has been on 7 missions with HUGS.
"On one of the trips, I had this little girl come up to me and say, 'You made my dreams come true.," Shannon said. "It just makes you pause."
"As Americans, we're born in the right country," says Dr. William Koenig, who practices with Dr. Quatela. "As a human, I was born without medical problems. As a child, I was born with great parents who taught me and raised me and you've got to give back because not everyone is that lucky."
A team from HUGS has been traveling to Guatemala for years, in part because return visits are important for the patients. This is especially the case for microtia patients, as creating normal looking ears for them requires several procedures.
"This is the right way to do it," says Dr. Peggy Kelley, a surgeon from Colorado. "Come in, commit to a country. Come back. Make relationships."
"We get to know the families," says Dr. Goldman. "I look forward to seeing them. They are my Facebook buddies. The world is getting smaller every year."
This is the second report in a 5-part series about this trip to Guatemala. Our series of reports on the mission to Guatemala continues each night this week on 13 WHAM News at 5:00 and 11:00. For more information on HUGS, click here.