Fixing Little Faces: A Look at Dr. Taha Shipchandler’s Mission Trips

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“I would encourage anyone to go on a mission trip and have that unique experience,” says Dr. Shipchandler.

Every year, Dr. Taha Shipchandler makes a mission trip, boarding a plane to Nicaragua to help children born with cleft lip, palate or those who have incurred severe burns. Patients and their parents come from far and wide to receive care. “Some travel over 18 hours to get to us, floating on boats down rivers or hiking or biking for hours on end,” Dr. Shipchandler says. “Most of the patients that we see have never been treated by a doctor. Sometimes, they’ve been suffering for months, sometimes for years.” 

Dr. Shipchandler, currently division chief of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine and IU Health Physicians, says the mission trips began with a promise he made as a medical student. “It was brought to my attention by my fellowship director when I was in training at John Hopkins,” he explains. “He was a mentor of mine and one day he asked me to be a part it. I said yes that day, and I’ve been going ever since.”

The mission trips to help the kids of Nicaragua, which currently pair John Hopkins and Indiana University Health Physicians, are organized with the help of Vivian Pellas and her organization,  Aproquen: The Burned Childcare Foundation. Pellas, who was once a burn victim herself, collaborates with the clinicians to provide care to the impoverished pediatric populations of Nicaragua.

“IU Health and the team at Riley are very supportive of this project,” says Dr. Shipchandler. “Riley Hospital for Children, for instance, provides the surgical sets for our trip.” This includes things like scalpels, cleft lip and palate surgical trays, all equipment necessary to visualize inside a child’s mouth, retraction equipment and dissectors to prep the palate, the doctor says. “It’s like 50 to 70 surgical instruments that are in this big metal tray that we travel with each year. We use them there, and return the tools later on.”

Dr. Shipchandler has served as the IU Health team lead for the trip for the last four years. IU Health staffers are always welcome to come, he says, saying that most attendees are nurses and residents. The trips typically last a week or two. And while Dr. Shipchandler admits the time away and the travel can be challenging, the rewards of the experience, he says, are long-lasting. “I have young kids, so it’s hard for me to leave them and to put my patients on hold, too. But, it’s a renewing experience.”

Once there, he says, the process is somewhat simplistic. “In Nicaragua, we start by discussing the surgeries with the parents and patients and then there’s a handshake, an inherent understanding that we as clinicians will do everything we possibly can to help and care for the child,” explains Dr. Shipchandler. “It’s the essence of what good healthcare should be. And then as a physician, you have the ability to change lives within hours of operating. A child’s life may have been headed down one trajectory and then with some medical intervention a large difference is made—and that is deeply gratifying.”

One memory that stays with him: In 2011, Dr. Shipchandler completed the trip’s first free tissue transfer. “We had a boy come in for care who had suffered serious kerosene burns. He had scar tissue form that contracted his neck so tightly that he couldn’t look up from the ground. So, we took tissue from one part of his body (his thigh) and reconstructed it around his head and neck to provide more mobility.

I will never forget the look of gratitude on his face when he realized that he could look up at the sky.”

Moments like this, he says, make the trips worthwhile. But, Dr. Shipchandler admits, they can still be physically exhausting. “There are many early mornings and late nights since we strive to make as big of an impact as we can,” he says. “We have no formal patient quota.”

The clinicians see all patients on the first day, which can be up to 150, Dr. Shipchandler says. “Then, we triage them and give them a priority ranking. Sometimes, there are so many children that we cannot treat everyone and that’s really disheartening.”

Post-surgery, two plastic surgeons in Nicaragua are then contracted to provide follow-up care. “But since our patient’s resources are so slim, some cannot pursue that option,” says Dr. Shipchandler. The result:  The surgical team approach care in ways that will result in no to minimal aftercare.

Still, despite the long travel and sometimes stressful conditions, the seasoned doctor continues on. “I would encourage anyone to go on a mission trip and have that unique experience,” says Dr. Shipchandler. “The intrinsic reward is so great. It’s a monumental feeling every clinician should have the opportunity to experience at least once in their lifetime.”

-- By Sarah Burns

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