Dr. Ben Kittinger made his first medical mission trip to Guatemala two years ago, after being inspired by his good friend and fellow plastic surgeon Dr. Jim Tidwell. Kittinger, who specializes in reconstructive surgery, left for Guatemala once again on June 8 to serve with Faith In Practice medical missions to repair the cleft lips and palates of the area’s children.
According to their website, Faith In Practice is committed to serving the poor of Guatemala through short-term medical mission trips that take an integrated approach to care and strive to reach those in the greatest need. More than 1,300 medical professionals from all over the world travel to Guatemala each year at their own expense to help the poor in an area that his little or no access to medical care.
“It’s a great work vacation. I hadn’t been in two years, so it was really nice to go back,” Kittinger said. “The amount of groundwork that goes into these is really astounding. It really does take a full year to plan — I’m getting emails already about dates to plan for next year.”
Kittinger said Faith in Practice, now in its 25th year, sends 30-40 teams a year so there is a team there almost all of the time.
“One of the biggest concerns in any mission work is how these kids get taken care of if there’s a problem,” Kittinger said. “There’s always a team coming a week later. If there’s a problem — it can be taken care of. On our trip, we got to see some of our kids from the last year and see them healing. It’s just a great way and a great system.”
One of the people responsible for making sure that system works and that everything is in order prior to surgery is a woman named Tess who has used her heart for the people of Guatemala to found Tess Unlimited.
“This outgoing, amazing woman named Tess from Holland essentially started her own nonprofit for cleft lip and palate,” Kittinger said. “She kind of collects these patients and gets them healthy. We saw 26 patients, and everyone was prepped and ready and healthy.”
Tess is in charge of everything from health screenings to follow-up appointments, which Kittinger believes is a big part of why the cleft lip and palate program is so successful. He said Tess has hundreds of patients in waiting and, while she ensured an astounding 200 surgeries were performed this year, her goal is to reach 300. Yet, she estimates that there is 10 times the need.
“Down there it [cleft palate] is much more common,” Kittinger said. “There are a lot of studies going on to determine whether it is environmental or genetic. With studies showing it is less than 10 percent genetic — it’s kind of a mystery.”
According to Kittinger, cleft lip and palate reconstruction is much more than cosmetic. He said it really helps relieve issues with speech, swallowing and feeding. While these surgeries are ideally done as early as possible, usually between two and three years old, Kittinger said they have had patients as old as 24.
“We get a lot of fanfare because we do these very visually rewarding reconstructions on these kids,” Kittinger said. “But there is a team of general surgeons and OB-GYNs and they try to hit on any areas of need. They have done a very good job of building a team of cohesive people — it’s very rare that people don’t return every year.”
Kittinger said the team usually flies in on Saturday and starts clinic on Sunday. They then operate Monday through Thursday and then return home, as hard as it might be at that point.
“They all look at me with these idyllic eyes like I’m someone more than I am,” Kittinger said. “It gives you a whole new perspective on things. The things we worry about on a day to day basis are just nothing in comparison.”
Kittinger hopes to return to Guatemala again soon, this time hopefully with his wife Janae as well as Tidwell. Janae could not make this trip due to her current pregnancy, and Tidwell is still in the process of recovering from a spinal cord injury that occurred in August of 2018.
“I would love to go back at least more than once a year — it is extremely fun and rewarding,” Kittinger said. “I’m kind of following in the footsteps of Jim. I hoped we could go together, and he can’t yet, but hopefully soon.”
Kittinger, who admittedly does not take to social media very often, documented his trip daily through photographs and Facebook posts.
“Another great day, another baby treated for cleft lip with a wonderful result because of the amazing work of so many people. A team effort,” Kittinger wrote. “Each day has a different theme. Today’s was ‘hope,’ focusing on the attitude and strength of my dear friend, partner and mentor Jim Tidwell.”