Dr. Edwin Moreano can clearly remember when he returned to Ecuador for his first medical mission trip. He had just finished his surgical training, and was anxious to go back to help people in the country where he was born.
His first patient, a man in his late 60s, had a cleft lip from birth. “This man had never felt the sensation of a kiss in his life,” Moreano said, shaking his head. “Within an hour, he had a normal-looking lip, and all our nurses lined up to give him a kiss.”
Moreano, a plastic surgeon, has traveled to a number of Latin American countries since 1999 to offer his services free of charge to indigenous people. He doesn’t do tummy tucks or facelifts, but instead provides reconstructive facial surgery to people who live in poverty. Every year, he and his family, along with many volunteers, head to South America on what is known as the Moreano World Medical Mission.
Moreano, who came to the U.S. when he was 9, first thought about helping those less fortunate when he began his training in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. “I remember, while visiting my family in Ecuador, seeing kids and adults with deformities that I didn’t see in the U.S.,” he said. “In the United States, babies as early as 10 weeks old can get plastic surgery for common facial deformities like a cleft lip.”
Clefting results when there is not enough tissue in the mouth or lip, and the tissue that is available does not join together properly. The surgery required to fix a cleft is straightforward, however, and Moreano was surprised that it was not available to children in countries across South America.
“It was a shock to me how people [with a deformity] were pretty much abandoned,” he recalled. “[They are] ostracized by their families, left alone, and usually don’t marry.”
Over the years, the medical mission trips have grown. Moreano has recruited colleagues and friends to come along. Volunteers, almost all from Long Island, include surgeons, anesthesiologists, and medical and surgical technicians.
Moreano encourages the volunteers to bring their families. His son Cameron, now 19, has been volunteering since he was 6 years old. “Some of the volunteers used to call him ‘Dr. Moreanito,’” his father said with a laugh. “This is really a family mission.”
This year, for the first time, his 6- and 7-year-old daughters, Isabella and Gianna, are accompanying him on the trip. As volunteers, they “provide the smiles,” Moreano said. His wife, Natalia, and his older daughters — Gabriella, 16, and Jamie Lee, 13 — will also travel with him, along with almost 30 volunteers. “This is also a reunion trip of sorts,” Moreano explained. “For the first time since our first mission trip in 1999, my sister will be joining me, too.”
This year the mission team is going to Paraguay. The team will spend a week there, and treat approximately 100 patients. One of the reasons Moreano encourages volunteers to bring their children is so they can see how people from underprivileged parts of the world live. Growing up in Ecuador, he said, his family did not have a lot, and he wants his children to realize how lucky they are to live in such an affluent area.
Moreano also wants to encourage the children who take part in his mission trips to go into the health care profession. Sometime it works. “I get letters from our young volunteers saying that they’ve decided to go into health care after going on a mission trip,” he said. “That’s why health care was created, to help people.”
Bayville resident Dave Gugerty is volunteering with his wife, Helene, and their daughters Emma and Paige. This will be their sixth mission trip with Moreano. “My daughters, from their experience in this mission, both chose to go into health care,” Gugerty said. “And my wife, an acting Supreme Court justice, performed the wedding ceremony of two medical volunteers from the mission. It proves how we are truly all a family on the Moreano mission.”
Gugerty was also involved in organizing a fundraiser for the trip. Most volunteers pay their own way, but the mission team needs money to help defray the cost of medical supplies. The fundraiser was held at Davenport Press in Mineola in early February.
“I can’t express enough the unquestioned generosity of Bayville residents, who came out in droves to the fundraiser,” Gugerty said. “I’m super grateful to my neighbors.”
Not long before he was scheduled to board a plane to Paraguay for his 22nd medical mission trip, Moreano recalled one of his most memorable cases, when the mission team was in the Dominican Republican. The head doctor in a burn unit in a hospital there had been treating a young woman who was the victim of domestic violence.
The woman, a former model, had had battery acid thrown in her face by a jealous boyfriend. “Her eyelids were gone, her nostrils were closed and her lip was retracted to one side so she couldn’t speak,” Moreano said solemnly. “She had burns all over her neck ,and her chin was stuck to the bottom part of her neck, so her head had no mobility. The hospital didn’t know how to help her.”
Moreano’s team worked for five hours to reconstruct the woman’s face. The surgeons gave her new eyelids, opened her nostrils, straightened her lips, and released her chin from her neck to return her mobility. Moreano said that the woman eventually became a spokeswoman against domestic violence, traveling around the country to speak to other young women.
“She went from walking around wearing a veil to cover her face, to appearing on television after her surgery,” Moreano said. “That’s what keeps me going back. Every year there’s a story like that. Every year there’s a case that touches everybody.”
Donations to the 2018 medical mission trip can be sent to Moreano World Medical Mission c/o Dr. Edwin Moreano, 37-55 91 St., Jackson Heights, N.Y. 11372.