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Thursday, 19 December 2013 16:51

Beloit doctor brings smiles to South Sudan

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Beloit Health System otolaryngologist Dr. Tom Boeve with a patient during a recent medical mission to Sudan with the group Samaritan's Purse to repair cleft lips. Beloit Health System otolaryngologist Dr. Tom Boeve with a patient during a recent medical mission to Sudan with the group Samaritan's Purse to repair cleft lips. photo provided

STATELINE NEWS -- In 2011, Betty Inuha of South Sudan made a long journey to Juba, the country’s capital.

In a war-torn country roughly the size of Texas, with only 30 or so miles of paved road, travel can be treacherous and difficult. But the teenage Sudanese girl was determined.

She knew that Beloit Health System otolaryngologist Dr. Tom Boeve was arriving with a Samaritan’s Purse humanitarian mission and staying for two weeks to repair cleft lips, and the surgery was something that she ardently desired.

Unfortunately, Inuha arrived late.

 She showed up to Juba Teaching Hospital only to find the mission packing and crating up the last of the equipment for their own long journey home. Regretfully, Boeve told her that he’d be back in March, and if she could make it back out he would perform the surgery for her then.

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Boeve is no stranger to humanitarian missions. The Beloit doctor began working with Samaritan’s Purse back in 2007, when they sent him on a short-term mission to Kenya with a cleft team.

By 2010, Boeve and his wife Jolene decided to pick up their family and move to Kijabe Hospital in Kenya, about an hour outside of Nairobi.

"It was an exciting adventure for our family," Jolene Boeve said. "It was a lot of work and a lot of planning for many unknowns. We truly felt in our heart that this was the path that God wanted us to take, which gave us a peace during the time of transition. One of the difficult things for me was the question of what to pack for my family."

The Boeve family spent the next three years working on providing cleft lip surgeries for severely underserved populations until Boeve was able to fully train a Kenyan who was working with him to take over the effort.

The family decided to return to the states, and Boeve said Beloit was a perfect fit for both his family and his specialty of otolaryngology.

Shortly after arriving in Beloit, Samaritan’s Purse got back in touch with Boeve to see if he’d be interested in participating in a new pilot program with a cleft team in the South Sudan, which, after much fighting with the north, had just become an independent state.

In many of the remote and impoverished parts of Africa, a cleft lip is far more than an easily fixable cosmetic issue. Scarcity of adequate surgical and medical treatment results in many thousands of Africans living with open cleft lips, which, due to their culture, often results in significant suffering and exile.

"In these countries a cleft deformity is really a huge detriment to the patient, basically they are looked at as deformed or possessed," Boeve said. "They usually can’t even go to school or get jobs and they become outcasts in their village and their society. They are ridiculed and spit on. I heard stories of children just having absolutely horrible lives because of this deformity, so they just hide away somewhere outside their villages while someone from the family tries to take care of them."

Betty Inuha was one of these children. She wanted to attend school and be a productive member of her village’s society, but her peers would beat, kick, slap and spit on her. It was this desire that drove her to seek out Boeve at the Juba Teaching Hospital, despite the superstitious rumors that circulate in the remote villages that trusting white doctors with your health was a death sentence. Boeve said that he was the first white man many of his patients had ever seen.

Despite the odds against her, Inuha persisted and returned as Boeve had instructed. Sadly, she was once again disappointed. Boeve’s March trip had been canceled.

"We had told Betty that we’d be back to do her surgery in March," Boeve said. "So she made the really long trip out again, but because of an outbreak of violence in the region at that time we couldn’t come out. The war with North Sudan was still flaring up here and there and in March they were bombing just an hour outside Juba. So by the hospital’s recommendation, we canceled the trip."

Luckily, the fighting had settled down shortly afterward and Samaritan’s Purse was able to make it out for two weeks in November 2012. It was on this trip that Inuha’s dogged persistence finally paid off, and Boeve made good on his promise by making a full repair of Inuha’s cleft lip.

Boeve returned from his most recent trip to South Sudan on Nov. 11. Pleased with the success, Samaritan’s Purse has made the South Sudan mission an official program to include in its catalog.

"Samaritan’s Purse had really looked at the cleft lip and palate program in South Sudan as a pilot project the first few years," Boeve said. "The country basically has nothing, so we have to fly in everything we need. Not only that, but a lot of the patients live in remote villages, so Samaritan’s Purse has to charter special flights to go out and get these people and then fly them back after they recover. It’s tremendously expensive, so they were concerned with whether or not this could be a program that would flourish or if it was something we’d have to pull the plug on."

The successes of the program have shined through, but the need for funding is ongoing. Boeve hopes it will continue for a long time and he has pledged to keep going every year, for as long as they’ll have him. According to Boeve, on their first trip in 2011 they repaired 41 cleft lips, on the second in 2012 they repaired 77 and on this most recent trip in November they fixed 90.

"We are getting better," Boeve said. "Things are getting smoother, and we are putting together better teams to make the trips more successful. It takes about two days to get there and two back, and once we get there the pace is hectic. We basically operated 10 to 12 hours a day."

Boeve says the reaction of his patients to having their cleft lip repaired is indescribable. A surgery that takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete changes their lives entirely. He says that after the surgery the patients often just stare for hours at the mirror. Often, his patients have spent their lives never even imagining that their deformity was something that was fixable, and the change is dramatic. Boeve has closed open cleft lips of people in South Sudan from ages 1 to 60, which is a testament to the scarcity of medical care in the country.

"I challenge anyone to recall an instance that they’ve seen an adult here in the states walking around with an open cleft. In my lifetime I’ve never seen a person in America with an open cleft other than a newborn," said Boeve.

Jolene Boeve does what she can to support her husband while he is out on these missions, and she is pleased that he’s able to share his knowledge and skills with the Sudanese.

"It is sad to think of a child or an adult living with something that can be easily fixed," Jolene Boeve said. "I see myself as one of the mothers holding a child with a cleft lip. I would feel helpless for my child. God has given us gifts that we are able to share with others."

Boeve got a surprise on his most recent trip. Even though Inuha’s lip had been repaired in 2012, she decided to come out again anyway, but this time she didn’t have to travel as far.

"She came back to see me this year and she was just glowing," said Boeve. "Now she is a full- time student and she says she is doing great. She moved to Juba and has huge dreams. She told me she wants to become a doctor like me so she can do this for others. I could just see a dramatic difference in her eyes, there was confidence, enthusiasm and joy."

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