Twelve-year old Atiya lies on the operating table whimpering as German plastic surgeon, Connie, and American nurse, Kristen, pull the old gauze bandages off Atiya’s fragile, damaged skin and replace them with new ones. Connie periodically pauses her work to stroke Atiya’s hair and cheek, cooing ‘good girl’ like a loving mother.
In a corner of the same room, American plastic surgeon, Tracy, works with 15-year-old Monsur, who had a burn-scar contracture to the right hand and a burned face. 'He lost the tips of his fingers and what he had left was stuck together,' she explains.
'We separated the fingers.' Monsur motions for Tracy to let him remove the old bandages using his good hand, and she graciously obliges.
In the next room Marie-Christine, a Swiss plastic surgeon, works on replacing the bandages on 8-year-old Enamul’s leg, burned by a hot oil spill. In contrast to Atiya, he lies quietly, holding a bag of candy, two finger puppets, and a stuffed animal given to him by Pauline, a German medical student.
It’s the final hour of an eight-day trip to the Friendship Hospital ship in Bangladesh where the seven-member all-female team from WomenforWomen provided plastic surgery for 53 women and children under age 18. Now they are rushing to change the last bandages before flying back to Dhaka on the MAF float-plane, then home to their busy lives and jobs.
The Gift of Dignity
This is the sixth medical trip to this location for Dr. Connie Neuhann-Lorenz who founded WomenforWomen, an organisation of female plastic surgeons, with a friend in 2010. 'We were considered the cosmetic plastic surgeons, or the beauty surgeons, giving help to vain women. We wanted to demonstrate that plastic surgery is something completely different than it is perceived in the public.'
Connie wanted to use their skills for the poorest of the poor in countries where women have little value and rights. 'Women in countries like this would not have the ability to receive plastic surgery at the scale that we are able to do,' Connie explains. 'So we thought out of a kind of solidarity for these women, we would try to bring dignity back to their lives. They don’t have much.'
The organisation works in many countries including India, Tanzania, and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, WomenforWomen partners with Friendship, an NGO with three hospital ships that move along river systems docking at ‘chars’ – islands created from sediment. Chars often disappear in flood times forcing people to move. Burn accidents from oil lamps and open fires are common for the char people and, with no money for treatment, the burns often heal in grotesque ways, sometimes leaving a woman or child with fingers fused together or an arm permanently bent or attached to their side.
Although the majority of burns are accidental, Bangladesh has one of the highest incidence world-wide of reported acid attacks against women. However, many will make up a story rather then report what actually happened. 'We may never know how they were burned, but this is not our issue,' Connie says. 'Our issue is to help them live life with dignity.'
For Dr. Tracy McCall, the trip felt like a healing hand on her soul. After six years of applying, the timing and her work schedule finally aligned, making it possible for her to join a trip.
'In the US, we have a lot of problems right now with physician dissatisfaction,' Tracy describes. 'Over 50% of the physicians practicing in the US at this time are suffering from signs of clinical depression. The rate of those having suicidal thoughts is a lot higher than what you would expect. Like so many others, I’ve been struggling. It’s become harder and harder to do my work. It’s like they reached into me, grabbed my soul and my heart, ripped them out, threw them on the floor and stomped all over them. I knew I had to do something. When Connie came to me with this trip, it was at the right time. These people gave me my soul back. I’m not kidding about that. It’s a huge gift.'
Heartache and Healing
Her eyes seemingly empty of emotion, twenty-three year old Jahanara sits on one of the wooden platforms serving as beds in one of two temporary wards set up near where the hospital ship had docked. Just over a year ago her husband divorced her, leaving her to return to her mother’s home with her two-year-old child. Barely two months later, an accident with a kerosene stove took the life of her child and left her with a burned and deformed hand. Jahanara’s surgery required removing thick scar tissue, tendon repair, end joint fusion, the securing of a K-wire and skin grafts. Without WomenforWomen's highly qualified plastic surgeons someone of Jahanara’s socio-economic status could never access this specialised treatment.
'So we thought out of a kind of solidarity for these women, we would try to bring dignity back to their lives' Dr. Connie Neuhann-Lorenz
Connie is proud that the teams are highly qualified at their jobs. WomenforWomen can currently choose from a pool of about 200 professionals. Anaesthesiologists are particularly important, she says, and 'we have the best of the best', referring to Austrian Inge Haselsteiner and German Sigrid Kessler. There’s no skimping on quality. The procedures are the same as what they would do in their own practice.
Time and Security
MAF Bangladesh flights allow the team to make the most of their precious time, performing more surgeries rather than sitting in a car for a full day to reach their destination. Since the terrorist attack in July 2016, it also means better security for the team as they can avoid an overnight stay in Dhaka. After arriving on their international flight they can immediately board the MAF aircraft for the flight to the safety of the river where Friendship hospitals are highly respected.
Marie-Christine, who had participated in two medical trips just prior to the terrorist attack, says, 'After the July attack I was not that comfortable spending a night in Dhaka. To leave with the sea plane the same day, the fact that it’s flexible, is very nice for us. Now we’re taking the plane to Dhaka and a few hours later we’re getting on our flight.'
Inge tells of the time MAF couldn’t fly due to bad weather so two teams went by road; one to the south and one to the north. 'It was a disaster,' Inge says. The team drove for 10 hours and slept overnight somewhere along the roadside. At one point there was shooting and the team lay flat on the floor of the car. 'So we are really, absolutely happy and grateful that we can use the plane.'
A Greater Gift
The team of professionals work as unpaid volunteers and the expenses for the trip are occasionally donated or paid from their pockets. It’s a gift they happily give, women to women.
'These people gave me my soul back. I’m not kidding about that. It’s a huge gift.'Dr. Tracy McCall
'People ask why do we just treat women. Of course we treat all the kids, even boys, but mainly women because they don’t have any rights in this country,' Inge explains. 'It’s just little drops that we can help, and they’re very grateful that somebody takes care of them and is interested in their problems.'
Through giving of their time, energy and skills to women and children who have very little, Women for Women volunteers feel they have received a greater gift in return.
'Have I done something for these people? Yes, I have,' Tracy says. 'Have they done something for me? I think they’ve done more for me than I’ve done for them.'