Local Surgeon Changes Lives in Belize

Photo by Chrystal Scanlon

Belize is a bucket list vacation spot for many. It boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world, the highest concentration of Mayan archeological sites and the famous Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole that attracts thousands of scuba divers annually. 

But there’s something Belize doesn’t have – a full time plastic surgeon. Plastic surgery is a discipline that often is dismissed as elective instead of necessary, but to people like Zaide, who lost half of her scalp in a horrible car accident at the age of 12, and to José, who had difficulty eating as an infant due to a cleft lip, plastic surgery is life-changing.

Devinder Mangat, MD, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon, has traveled to Belize for the past 10 years as a member of the surgical team organized by Horizon Community Church. 

“When I first met Zaide she wouldn’t even show her head,” says Dr. Mangat. “The need in Belize is incredible.” 

She kept it wrapped, self conscious about her appearance. After the accident, local surgeons repaired her scalp with skin grafts, but that part of her head would never grow hair again. 

On Dr. Mangat’s first surgical trip, he was one of two surgeons with a couple of anesthesiologists and some nurses. Together, they made up a team of 12 and performed more than 40 surgeries. In 10 years, the team has doubled and includes ENT surgeons as well. The team flies to Belize on Thursday, and then hundreds of people come on Friday to meet the doctors and see if they are good candidates for surgery. Then surgeries are conducted Saturday through Tuesday, totaling close to 100. 

Dr. Mangat has performed five or six operations on Zaide. In the first one, he used what are called “tissue expanders,” which act like balloons. He placed them under the part of her scalp that has hair and slowly inflated the “balloons” to generate more scalp that has hair. After a period of time, Dr. Mangat moved the newly generated scalp with hair to where there was no hair. 

The surgical team brings their own supplies to Belize. Dr. Mangat and his partners at Mangat, Holzapfel & Lied Plastic Surgery in Cincinnati; Northern Kentucky and Vail, Colorado, have been instrumental in providing not only surgical instruments but also syringes and sutures, anything needed for surgery. The team can’t depend on those supplies being available in Belize. Dr. Mangat’s practice has supplied some of their own support personnel – nurses and operating room technicians – to help the people of Belize. Over the years, they’ve refined a list of what they take. The airlines charge for every bag, making proper supply estimates important for cost as well as efficiency. 

José’s father works at the airport. Dr. Mangat repaired José’s cleft lip when he was six-months old. His father greets the team with gratitude and makes sure they enter the country smoothly through customs. At the end of the trip, Mangat’s team gifts the local hospital with any surplus supplies. Any unintended excess will help local surgeons throughout the year. 

“We’ve developed a good relationship with the government and the people of Belize,” says Dr. Mangat. All medical personnel on the surgical team are registered through the Ministry of Health. The team asks permission to work in their hospitals and the accompanying well-care medical team that goes in tandem with the surgical team asks to be assigned to the villages that need medical care the most. 

On some global service or missionary trips, the people might find a local missionary to work through, but the government might not know they’re there. Dr. Mangat’s team believes that by working through the infrastructure that is in place, they are helping the citizens work within their own system instead of creating a competitive one. Through television, radio and word of mouth, people know when the surgical team is coming and where the assessment clinic is taking place. José, who is 8, always shows up to say hello and to show how good he looks thanks to Dr. Mangat. 

When it comes to medical protocol, the team follows the rules and procedures of Belize, even though they might be different than what might be considered standard in the United States. John Kirby, the trip representative from Horizon Community Church, says they honor the Country’s standard. “If we do our own thing, it communicates that we don’t respect them.”

“The people of Belize have come to expect the help to fulfill these needs in reconstructive surgery,” says Dr. Mangat. Because of that, he initiated a second annual trip two years ago. Sometimes procedures take two or three steps, like in Zaide’s case, so going twice a year, a patient doesn’t have to wait 12 months for the next step. Dr. Mangat goes in February and October to help more people, more quickly.  “It was his leadership,” says Kirby, “that started the October trip.”

“The trip has taken on a whole new meaning and a whole new life,” says Dr. Mangat, “and when things like this happen, it creates more responsibility on everyone’s part to remain diligent and determined.”

Beyond the donations of supplies and medicine, above the fact that doctors donate a week of their private practice each trip, everyone has to pay their own way. Twice a year nurses, pharmacy techs, physicians and others pay more than $1,800 each to help fill the medical and surgical void in Belize. “We look for support from the community to help with this trip,” says Dr. Mangat. 

Zaide is 18 now. Dr. Mangat provided facial scar revision procedures as well as the scalp expansions. She has graduated from high school and has a job. She is another patient who always comes to greet Dr. Mangat to express her gratitude and to show her beautiful, full head of hair.

Horizon Community Church sponsors a golf outing to raise money to help pay expenses for the surgical team’s trips to Belize. The event is scheduled for September 26 at Ivy Hills Golf Course. For more information, call John Kirby at 513.272.5800, ext 219, or visit www.horizoncc.com/bgo.