Operation Esperanza: Reconstructive Surgeries in Ecuador

Trubenbach, her father, and daughter at work.

From the operating room of Docente Hospital in Riobamba, Ecuador, Jennifer Trubenbach looks out into a waiting room packed with children waiting patiently at their parents’ sides. Some of these families have traveled for days—walking, canoeing, and riding the bus from deep in the Amazon, or from neighboring countries like Columbia and Peru. This is Trubenbach’s fifth time visiting the hospital, so she is prepared for the suffering she will see in the upcoming days. She knows that by the end of this week, the lives of some of these children will be changed.

Trubenbach (M.A. ’04, Ed. Tech.) is the program director of Operation Esperanza, a medical nonprofit founded by her father, Joseph Clawson, 16 years ago. Clawson, 73, a retired reconstructive surgeon, created Esperanza to treat populations in Ecuador that are at high risk for facial deformities. His medical team specializes in correcting cleft lip and palate, a condition in which tissue at the roof of the mouth, upper jaw, and lip does not join properly. In the U.S., one in 750 babies is born with a cleft lip or palate. Ecuador’s indigenous population carries the genetic trait in much higher numbers, but the country’s medical services are not equipped to treat the condition properly. “In the States, a baby born with this deformity is usually operated on in the first year of life,” says Trubenbach “but in Ecuador we’ve seen teenagers who have suffered through their entire childhoods with deformities.”

An Operation Esperanza nurse with mom and her cleft lip baby.

As her action research project in the educational technology program, Trubenbach decided to overhaul her father’s nonprofit organization, streamlining operations and connecting the group to national and international resources. The results have been significant: on the 2004 trip, Esperanza took a team of 25—including three senior doctors and two surgery residents from UC Davis—and performed 103 surgeries in nine days. Trubenbach has also connected the nonprofit to the Ecuadorian government and improved the group’s public relations—she recently recruited the support of the first lady of Ecuador and, on its last visit, Esperanza was featured in nine newspapers and appeared on Buenos Dias, the Ecuadorian equivalent of Good Morning America.

Children in Riobamba, Ecuador

The psychological impact of these severe deformities—a two-inch gap reaching from the upper lip to the nose, or teeth and gums on the outside of the mouth—is severe, says Trubenbach. Many affected children become isolated, drop out of school, or hide at home without friends or any connection to the community. But she says that the more severe and challenging the deformity, the more compelled her father is to intervene. She describes a particularly devastating case from her last trip—Lorena, a 20-year-old girl, whose nose was in the shape of a pig snout. The girl appeared at the hospital in Riobamba with her head hung low. Her father stood by her side looking sad but resigned—through her childhood, multiple doctors had turned her away saying it was impossible to operate on her nose. “He stood in the corner the whole time, looking hopeless as the doctors examined her,” remembers Trubenbach. “But I knew the moment I looked at her that my father would never turn her away.” Sure enough, after five hours of surgery, Trubenbach says, “This girl has the most gorgeous, perfect nose.” Since the surgery, the girl has been able to work outside the home for the first time in her life. A few of the Operation Esperanza nurses were so inspired by the case that they decided to put money together to fund the girl’s education, with the hopes that one day she would go to college.

Operation Esperanza will host “A Night of Smiles”—its first fund-raising gala—in Orange County this November. The event is intended to raise the $65,000 needed for the group’s 2006 trip to Ecuador.

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