AUBURN — The girl was about 2 years old, with bright eyes and a shy smile. Her feet twisted inward, a congenital deformity that made walking impossible.
In a crowded charity clinic in Honduras this past November, Dr. Michael Saraydarian wanted to help her. He could help her under normal circumstances — “normal” being those circumstances he worked under 51 weeks a year at Central Maine Orthopaedics in Auburn, Maine. But the girl had contracted a respiratory infection, making anesthesia a high-risk procedure in Honduras.
If he didn’t do the surgery during his week at the clinic, she would have little chance of undergoing an operation from someone else anytime soon and her feet would get worse. If he did the surgery, she might die.
Unhappy, Saraydarian walked away.
“They don’t have an intensive care center and they don’t have the means of recovering a patient that does have some deleterious effect from the anesthetic,” he said. “So I wasn’t able to help her.”
Over the past several years, Saraydarian and other surgeons from Central Maine Orthopaedics have made annual sojourns to the Ruth Paz Clinic in San Pedro Sula, helping hundreds of patients with surgeries to mend broken legs, amputate badly damaged limbs and fix clubbed feet. But sometimes it’s the patients they can’t help who stick in their memories.
It’s part of the reason they keep going back.
Since 1999, various doctors from the Auburn orthopaedic practice have traveled annually to the clinic, paying their own expenses, including airfare, hotels and shipping for equipment and supplies — some of which they bought. They spend a week there, with 12-hour days split between triage and treatment. They see as many patients as they can.
Although the clinic has its own staff, it relies on a rotating schedule of visiting specialists to help with the most complicated cases. Prospective patients can wait months or years for the chance to see a visiting specialist. Doctors sometimes pull the sickest and the most badly injured from the local public hospital, where patients have to pay for their own medical supplies, including the plates and screws used to repair broken bones, and where operating rooms are so overbooked that the wait-list for surgery can be weeks or months long.
“They’re sitting there and they don’t have any hope in sight,” Saraydarian said.
In November, Saraydarian and fellow orthopaedic surgeon Paul Cain traveled to the clinic. Saraydarian has gone every year — sometimes twice a year — since 2005. Cain made his first trip last year. During that first trip, he was struck by how little medical care the Honduran people had and how much Americans took for granted.
“(Hondurans) would end up breaking their tibia or having a dislocated ankle or shoulder in routine automobile accidents or motorcycle accidents,” Cain said. “In this country, you expect to go to the ER, you expect someone to show up and you get fixed, and you go on with your life. Down there, it can permanently change your life.”
Among his operations this year, Cain amputated a badly infected foot, repaired fractured limbs and reconstructed a major knee ligament in an operation not done before in that clinic.
“We did the best we could to see as many people as we could, but people would wait all day, sometimes, to see us and have a very quick office visit because that’s all we could do,” Cain said. “But they never showed any signs of disappointment. They were always appreciative. And after surgery, they were extremely stoic. They were very ready to get out of the clinic and get back to wherever they came from and rehab on their own.”
Saraydarian spent the week repairing broken bones, fixing deformities and amputating limbs when nothing else could be done. He also saw three former patients — one who’d had surgery on a clubbed foot and now needed an operation on the other foot, one who had a problem with a screw that had been put in and one who arrived at the clinic to just say thank you.
Although Saraydarian could do little for the 2-year-old girl he so badly wanted to help, he did change the life of a 14-year-old boy.
The teenager’s ankle was crushed. He’d been languishing for three weeks in the public hospital and had little hope until Saraydarian gave him the operation he needed to repair his leg. Saraydarian trained a doctor there to perform the boy’s follow-up care. The Mainer also makes himself available to consult with Honduran doctors over the Internet and through email.
The girl sticks in his memory because he couldn’t help her. The boy sticks in his memory because he could.
“I found him,” Saraydarian said. “I told the mother I would like to help him and fix the ankle, and I was able to do that. And that was good.”
Both Saraydarian and Cain plan to go back, likely sometime in 2012.
“I very rarely have the opportunity, which is good, here in America to make someone walk who has never walked before,” Saraydarian said. “I could do that all week in Honduras.”