Healing faces, one at a time
By Susan Chaityn Lebovits | March 12, 2006
When Richard Ehrlichman arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, each spring, he's greeted by hundreds of fans. He's not a movie star but a plastic surgeon who comes primarily to repair the facial deformities of children. Many waiting for the free surgery travel for days in hopes of being chosen.
Ehrlichman, who lives in Wellesley, and his colleague, Robert Gilman of Dedham, have been making the annual pilgrimage for the last seven years through the US-based program Healing the Children, which works in conjunction with the Rotary Club in Colombia. Each year, they have one week to operate on 60 patients.
''One of the hardest parts is turning people away," said Ehrlichman, 50. ''On our first day there, we'll screen between 200 and 300 people. It's awful because the families beg, and we can only take a fraction of them."
The surgeons choose those most in need. About 60 percent of the work they do involves repairing cleft lip and palate. Other common problems include congenital hand deformities, such as fused fingers and extra fingers, and injuries from burns, as many people cook with charcoal doused in kerosene.
One of Ehrlichman's most dramatic cases involved a boy who had been so badly burned that his healed skin became too tight to flex. The contracted skin pulled the joints, preventing any motion and leaving him unable to use his hands and legs.
''He hadn't walked in years," said Ehrlichman. ''In order to see us he had to be wheeled in on a cart."
Two years later, the boy walked into the operating room to visit Ehrlichman and show off his recovery.
Another memorable patient was a 16-year-old girl who had a cleft lip and palate.
''She had basically been kept in the back of her family's house for years because it was assumed that she was cursed," said Ehrlichman, adding that Colombians call the defect ''the kiss of the devil."
''She was a beautiful girl. To see her [afterward] was probably one of the most satisfying surgeries," he said.
Each year, the duo close their Wellesley practice, Plastic Surgery Specialists Inc., and head to Colombia with a team of two residents, three anesthesiologists, four nurses, and a pediatrician. The partners, who have been in private practice together since 1992, each run an operating room and perform three or four surgeries a day. Their next trip is in May.
They stay in a hotel owned by a local Rotarian. As the hospital where they operate is in a dodgy part of town, they are escorted by armed guards.
''We have a group of 20 people and we never go out alone," Ehrlichman said. ''The main thing now in Colombia is kidnapping for money. Three years ago, a Rotarian's husband was kidnapped but later returned unharmed."
He admits that his wife doesn't particularly look forward to his trips.
If not for a twist of fate, Ehrlichman might very well have spent his life working in produce and frozen foods, not in medicine.
''I always thought that I would go into the supermarket business," said Ehrlichman, whose mother's family owned and operated a chain of 100 supermarkets. ''It's what everyone in my family did."
When the family sold the business in 1972, Ehrlichman decided to pursue his interest in biology.
He received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and did his plastic surgery residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
He says Dr. Joseph E. Murray , who was Brigham's chief of plastic surgery, was his biggest inspiration. Murray, now in his late 80s, was co-winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in medicine for his pioneering work in organ transplantation. Dr. Jean-Michel Dubernard, the French surgeon who recently performed the world's first face transplant, also trained under Murray.
Ehrlichman's wife, Nancy, is Murray's personal assistant and helps him with writing, scheduling, and setting up the Plastic Surgery Archives at the Countway Medical Library at Harvard University.
The Ehrlichmans have three children, ages 8, 15, and 20. Their daughter, Lauren, who attends Princeton University, recently spent time in Cartagena for her senior thesis, researching healthcare for cleft lip and palate patients in Third World countries.
Those she talked with included some of the people her father helped heal.
For information on Heal the Children, visit www.htcne.org or call 860-355-1828.
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