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

Jager Weatherby on 15 Jan 2015 at 5:00pm

Larrabee and Patient in China
Dr. Larrabee holds a cleft lip patient in China

When asking what words the average American associates with plastic surgeons, we here at RealSelf have heard the spectrum of opinions: fake, expensive, makeover, beauty, butcher, and magician. (Just to name a few.) What we haven’t heard, however, is “charitable” or “humanitarian.” Yet these are just the sort of the words that should be used to describe Seattle-based plastic surgeon Dr. Wayne Larrabee.

The physician is the founder of the Larrabee Center for Plastic Surgery, as well as a Clinical Professor in Facial Plastic Surgery at the University of Washington. While much of his work is conducted in the Pacific Northwest, he’s provided free reconstructive surgeries for war injuries and cleft deformities in five different continents. As a former major in the US Army Medical Corps, he received the Army Commendation Medal for Disaster Relief after the Nicaraguan earthquake. He’s one of the founding members of Face to Face and Global Surgical Outreach, both of which provide pro bono surgery and education throughout the world.

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“A child born to poor parents in Africa, Latin America, Asia, or elsewhere with such a cleft deformity will be disadvantaged in speech, appearance, education, and job opportunities,” Dr. Larabee recently wrote in the Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery. “A goal to ensure that every child born with a cleft lip or palate receives appropriate reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation is achievable in the present time.”

RealSelf caught up with Dr. Larrabee to hear more about his humanitarian efforts, and learn how average Americans can make the biggest impact, even without surgical skills.

Dr. Larrabee Operating
Dr. Larrabee and his medical team perform surgery in China

RealSelf: What inspired you to start going on these medical trips?
Dr. Larrabee:
I was always interested in global health. I obtained a master's degree in public health with my MD at Tulane University. I fell in love with surgery during my medical school days, but wanted to maintain my interest and commitment to global health. During my military time, I volunteered to serve as the chief of Civic Action and Disaster Relief in Central and South America or the US Army. I lived in Panama and worked a lot in small villages doing medical missions, as well as broader missions like medical relief efforts after the Nicaraguan earthquake. After my training in facial plastic surgery, I seized the opportunity to do cleft repairs and other reconstructive surgery in the less developed world. I initially worked mainly in Latin America, but later worked cleft missions in China and provided reconstructive surgery to those injured during war in Croatia. I founded Global Surgical Outreach (GSO) to better support our missions, but also to more broadly address the global burden of surgical disease. We are currently providing these services in Ethiopia.

RealSelf: Have you had one patient in particular who’s really left a lasting impression on you?
Dr. Larrabee:
One patient that’s remained in my memory is a 10-year-old boy in Croatia. He was running from artillery fire in the Balkan War when he accidentally stepped on a landmine from World War II. He sustained loss of one of his legs and part of his arm, in addition to major facial injuries. The severity of his injuries and the sad irony of the landmine remind me how fragile children are and how violence can reach across time to harm them.

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RealSelf: What do you think we take for granted in America that you wish others could see through your eyes?
Dr. Larrabee:
Surgeons in America assume they’re going to be working in advanced medical facilities with the best supplies and a team of supportive professionals. But our colleagues in the lesser developed world frequently have none of this. I’d like the general public to understand what we’ve termed “the global burden of surgical disease.” Surgical problems of all kinds are a huge burden to people in other parts of the world and these surgical missions can dramatically improve their lives. [Editor’s note: You can read more about the surgical burden of disease in an article written by Dr. Larrabee and Dr. Tollefson in the Journal of the American Medical Association.]

Father and Daughter Cleft Lips
A father and daughter have their cleft lips repaired on the same day in Mexico

RealSelf: Where do you see the biggest need and how can average Americans make an impact?
Dr. Larrabee:
There are volunteer opportunities both in the US and abroad. We all need to help educate our own citizens on how much need exists and how many lives can be improved with relatively limited resources. America can support organizations that provide this assistance both by volunteering and donating funds. Look for organizations for which you feel a personal connection and whose budgets are focused on improving patients’ lives.

RealSelf: What’s the message you would give to young doctors about making time for this kind of work?
Dr. Larrabee:
It’s a life changing experience. Don’t miss the opportunity. Begin by preparing. There are a number of good courses on surgical missions, like recent ones at Stanford and UC Davis. The recently published book Complete Cleft Care is a great resource, and all proceeds are donated to Global Surgical Outreach. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) offers the Face to Face outreach program, which provides good opportunities. Talk to experienced global surgeons and ask for advice and guidance. And look close to home, as well. The Domestic Violence and Faces of Honorprograms of the AAFPRS offer a chance to use your skills to provide pro bono surgery for victims of domestic violence and wounded veterans in your own communities.

Dr. LarrabeeAbout Dr. Wayne Larrabee
Dr. Wayne Larrabee is a Clinical Professor in Facial Plastic Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a Fellowship Director of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Dr. Larrabee’s research and clinical writings have resulted in over 150 publications. He’s had three medical books published and is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He’s one of the founding members of the Face to Face program, which provides pro bono surgery and education throughout the world.

Learn more about Dr. Larrabee on his RealSelf profile