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Peru trip to help kids ‘very fulfilling’ experience for St. Luke’s Children’s surgeons

St. Luke's Children's surgeons Dr. Phillip Chaffin and Dr. Pat Gerety stand together above Cusco, Peru, where they spent four days in August performing cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries.
By Dave Southorn, News and Community
October 6, 2022

They have shared an office together for two years. They traveled 5,000 miles together, spending dusk to dawn together in the operating room and then sharing a hotel.

And yet, Drs. Phillip Chaffin and Pat Gerety came back to St. Luke’s Children’s with an even deeper appreciation for one another and their work.

Chaffin and Gerety, an ear nose and throat specialist and plastic surgeon, respectively, traveled to Cusco, Peru, in August as part of a Medical Missions for Children team. In Peru, the pair operated on 40 cleft lip and cleft palate patients over four days.

Drs. Chaffin, left, and Gerety, right, with other members of the Medical Missions for Children team in Peru.

“Spending this intense week kind of reinforces why you do what you do,” Chaffin said. “It’s very fulfilling … we all go into medicine for various reasons, but top on most people’s lists is to help others.”

Added Gerety: “I came back so tired physically, but spiritually and emotionally rejuvenated.”

It was Chaffin’s fifth trip to Cusco and Gerety’s first — Chaffin said the group needed a cleft surgeon and immediately said, “We need to get Pat on board.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Cleft lip and cleft palate are openings or splits in the upper lip, the roof of the mouth (palate) or both. Cleft lip and cleft palate result when facial structures that are developing in an unborn baby don't close completely.” Gerety said it occurs in about one in 750 births.

Children came from across the country, some families traveling 24 hours by bus to reach the city of about 400,000 located about 11,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.

“They literally would be coming out of the Amazon, bus, boat, walk, all of it,” Chaffin said.

Chaffin noted that on these trips, including the most recent, he will see kids that he operated on a few years ago — even if they didn’t need any immediate care. Some came just to say thank you and show their progress.

Dr. Chaffin with a patient in Peru.

“You do a surgery, the families will literally hand the child to you,” Chaffin said. “… I tell trainees and pull them aside and say, ‘This is what you want to do: When the child is in the recovery room, sit in the corner and watch the parents’ faces.’ It’s so touching to see the emotion that comes from it.”

The all-volunteer team also included surgery technicians, nurses, anesthesiologists and pediatricians from all corners of the United States, including California, New York and Florida.

“The primary reason we go is to provide care for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it,” Gerety said. “Access is a challenge. They have some good surgeons there, but they can’t do it for free.

“Sometimes, working with other people, you get to bring home something new you can use in your practice here. It’s very educational, too.”

Back home in Idaho, Chaffin and Gerety have continued to appreciate their own team, St. Luke’s Children’s Cleft and Craniofacial Clinic. It includes surgeons, speech therapists, feeding therapists, nurses and dieticians. They usually will do at least one cleft surgery a month.

“We have a fantastic team here,” Gerety said. “It takes until they’re adults until they’re truly done with it. There’s no one-and-done in cleft, working with all of our specialists and also dentists and orthodontists.”

The pair hope to return to Peru next year. But for now, with the experience fresh in their minds, they’ve built an even better rapport.

“I got to know him so much better, even despite sitting next to him for the last two years,” Chaffin said. “He’s a very thoughtful surgeon and a great part of what we do.”

Added Gerety: “He’s got a different expertise, so he’s bailed me out here and bailed me out there. We work really well together here, and it was pretty special we were able to do the same in Peru.”

About The Author

Dave Southorn works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.