"We Have the Privilege to Truly Change Someone's Future" — Dr. Benjamin Rodriguez on Free Plastic Surgery For Those in Need

Jager Weatherby on 30 Apr 2015 at 4:00pm

Dr. Rodriguez in Madagascar

As a plastic surgeon in Las Vegas, Nevada, Dr. Benjamin Rodriguez surely performs his fair share of breast augmentation and liposuction. However, for the double board-certified doctor, it’s imperative that his skills get used beyond the glitz of the Entertainment Capital of the World. For him, the role comes with a sense of responsibility to give back to those who are much less fortunate than he.

For more than 25 years, Dr. Rodriguez has donated a quarter of his time to providing much-needed surgeries for people around the world who lack access to basic medical care. Alongside a team of nurses, anesthesiologists, and support staff, he’s changed the lives of countless people in need in Mexico, India, Thailand, Ecuador, and the list goes on. His most recent trip was earlier this month, where he traveled to Madagascar to repair the cleft lips and palates of children and adults. He’s been asked to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo in the next few months, and Russia some time later this summer.

Cleft Before and After“When I first saw the conversion of someone shunned by the public, hidden by their family, unemployable, kept from social or educational opportunities, into a productive, engaging person with normal hopes and wants, it seared something inside of me that made we want to repeat that wonderful experience,” he says of his continued efforts. “There is long-lasting satisfaction in doing something for someone who can't help themselves.”

RealSelf caught up with Dr. Rodriguez to learn more about his incredible humanitarian efforts around the world. Below, he shares the emotional story of one of his most memorable patients, and urges young doctors to get involved with this work.

RELATED: "We Can Improve So Many Lives With Limited Resources" — Dr. Wayne Larrabee on Free Plastic Surgery Around the World

RealSelf: What inspired you to start going on these medical trips?
Dr. Rodriguez:
I first started going on humanitarian missions as a surgical resident. The opportunity gave me the chance to see and do things that are not common in the United States. Working with the local medical personnel and the patients was so much more of a cultural and sensory immersion than one ever gets from vacation travel. What "addicted" me to it becoming a lifetime habit was the changes I witnessed in the lives of the patients who we treated. I had the privilege of participating in truly changing the entire life and future of a person that I did not know.

RealSelf: What would you say is the most important aspect of the work that you do?
Dr. Rodriguez:
The most important work that I do on these humanitarian missions is to teach my foreign colleagues the art of repairing congenital and acquired deformities of the face and body. There’s that old saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime." I’ve seen the results of that year after year. Throughout the world, I occasionally encounter a surgeon or doctor who I’ve previously taught. When we meet, he or she is excited to show me their new skills and demonstrate how they’ve used what I have taught them and what they have added themselves.

RealSelf: Have you had one patient in particular who’s left a lasting impression on you?
Cleft Lip LadyDr. Rodriguez:
Two weeks ago, I repaired the cleft lip of a woman who comes from the coastal plain of southern Madagascar. Her age was listed as 30, but I estimated she was in her mid-to-late 40s. People who in live in the country of Madagascar often don’t know how old they are. A Peace Corps volunteer had found her and convinced her to come to the capital where we were working. She had never been in a motorized vehicle, and the experience was frightening to her. When approaching the foothills to the north, she became alarmed and asked why the ground was rising; she had never seen hills or mountains. As she arrived in the capital city of Antananarivo, she was overwhelmed when she saw buildings over one floor in height. She couldn’t read or write, and had no concept of what a signature is. She had never seen a television. She was in total sensory overload. We did our best to comfort and reassure her while we prepared for surgery and repaired her lip. She did great. Her husband was thrilled. She was finally whole. We taught them the “thumbs up” sign of approval, which they’d never seen before. I’ve spent many years in third world countries, but rarely encounter people who have been so isolated from the modern world as she.

RELATED: "In Less Than 2 Hours, You Can Change a Child's Life" — Dr. Mike Majmundar on Giving Back to Those in Need

RealSelf: What you do think we take for granted in America that you wish others could see through your eyes?
Dr. Rodriguez:
We take so much for granted those things that are considered luxuries or unobtainable in other countries. Simple things such as potable water from our house faucets, or cars stopping at stop signs, or having access to the services and goods that make up our normal everyday lives.

RealSelf: What message would you give to young doctors about making time for this kind of work?
Dr. Rodriguez:
The sacrifice of time and loss of income pales in terms of the soul-satisfaction I have received over the decades. I have seen my patients around the world grow up, get married, have families, earn professions and careers. There are few joys that compare to being part of changing a life. I encourage all to get out of their comfort zones and do something for someone else that they can't do for themselves. The rewards by far outshadow the sacrifice.

Dr. RodriguezAbout Dr. Benjamin Rodriguez

Dr. Benjamin Rodriguez is a board-certified plastic surgeon in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2005, Dr. Rodriguez was appointed to serve as one of the six physician members of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners, and served as President of the board from 2011 to 2013. He has been recognized with numerous awards from the Clark County Medical Society, the University of Nevada, Nevada Business Magazine, Las Vegas HEALS, and the Jefferson Awards for Achievement in Public Service.