Surgeon sees handiwork saving facesDuring the Korean War, Dr. Ralph Millard Jr., an American physician, treated many Koreans with cleft lip or palate, a deformity at birth that causes facial disfigurement to varying degrees. After returning to the United States in the mid-1950s, he pioneered cleft palate surgery, which impressed plastic surgeons the world over. His technique, known as “rotation-advancement,” is still used.
Due to the large number of cleft lip or palate patients, Korea has long been regarded as a laboratory for treating the disorder. Out of 70 million North and South Koreans, an estimated 100,000 have either cleft lip or palate.
Park Myung-yoon, chair of the department of plastic surgery at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine, has performed more than 2,500 cleft palate operations over his 31 years as a physician. Even more impressive are the number of operations he has performed at no charge to the patient.
Three decades ago, when Dr. Park was a medical resident, the Korean National Red Cross led a crusade again the deformity. “At the time, I used to travel all over the country with my professor, offering surgery free,” Dr. Park says. “Patients living in mountain and fishing villages wouldn’t even think of getting surgery with their own money at that time, and I couldn’t give up in the middle knowing there were people in need all over the country. So I served them for 10 years.”
Dr. Park could have earned a small fortune in other plastic surgery fields, but he shied away from the big money.
“I am not talented at money-making,” he says. “I’m not interested in it, either. If patients who would have lived in the shade for their entire life were able to see the sunlight thanks to my help, I’m satisfied.”
For a decade, he has been treating harelip patients at Holt Children’s Services, an adoption agency, and other welfare centers. In October, he visited Uzbekistan for 10 days to perform free operations.
It’s a journey he’s been making every year since 1999. He takes all of his instruments, courtesy of Yonsei’s Severance Hospital, and puts in 12-hour days “Many people are brought up well. But there are many people who find it hard to get a job because of their appearance,” he says. “Our society is advanced enough; these prejudices should disappear.”
by Kim Dong-sub