A 10-year-old Ghanaian boy no longer has to live with six fingers on each hand. For the first time in his life, he can put his hands in his pockets and make a fist.
Most importantly, he’s no longer considered a social outcast.
Orthopedic surgeon Robert Smolinski successfully removed the boy’s extra two digits last week in Elmina, Ghana.
Smolinski was among four surgeons, one anasthesiologist, five physicians, and several health science students from Daemon College in Buffalo and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, with the Hope For Tomorrow Foundation, a volunteer group based in Williamsville.
The foundation sends doctors and students, mainly from Buffalo, to third-world countries each year to provide surgeries for young people.
“It seems trivial to have an extra little finger, but when you have six fingers in their society, it’s a difficult thing to live with socially,” said Smolinski, an associate professor for the University at Buffalo’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery.
The team returned Thursday from the foundation’s 23rd trip abroad since it started in 1991. While in Ghana for four days, the doctors performed 35 surgeries and procedures.
The Hope For Tomorrow Foundation has operated on 3,200-plus young people in 24 countries, including Cuba, Tanzania, Nigeria, Vietnam and Haiti, and has brought 26 patients who needed major surgery to Buffalo.
Pope John Paul II inspired Jeffrey Meilman, a prominent Williamsville plastic surgeon, to start the effort.
In 1991, Meilman performed plastic surgery on a girl in Poland; he had been traveling the world to donate surgeries. Pope John Paul II, who was aware of the girl’s critical condition, blessed Meilman.
“He encouraged us to try to do this often, maybe on an annual basis,” Meilman said. “And he would try to receive our group and the children who we operated on as frequently as he could back at the Vatican.”
The foundation has since visited the Vatican often – Pope John Paul II blessed Meilman 17 times and Pope Benedict blessed the group twice. On the way back from Ghana, the team stopped in Rome, where Pope Francis blessed them.
In Ghana, Smolinski and two other orthopedic surgeons operated on broken bone fractions, deformities of extra digits and scarred hands and feet. A vascular surgeon performed several blood vessel procedures. Depending on what type of physicians join the effort each year, the types of surgeries vary.
Meilman’s organization began with just five physicans, and now is recognized internationally. CBS correspondent Rita Cosby and New York City attorney Christopher Nixon Cox, former U.S. president Richard Nixon’s grandson, have traveled with the foundation.
Though the physicians helped a few dozen patients in Ghana, there were hundreds more they had to deny because of limited resources and equipment.
It was frustrating, Smolinski said. But what the group can do each year is choose at least one patient who needs major surgery to bring to Buffalo.
This fall, they hope to fly a 7-year-old Ghanaian girl to Buffalo. The girl has a large cleft of her lip palette unrepaired and has never been able to speak or swallow properly. The trip and surgery will cost about $15,000.
The Hope For Tomorrow collects a majority of its funds from its annual banquet, usually held in September at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens Restaurant on Transit Road, that brings in about 700 attendees nationwide.
The foundation also donates surgeries to patients in Buffalo who don’t have health insurance. The Catholic Health System covers hospitalization costs.
Smolinski, who joined the foundation five years ago, said the voluntary surgeries serve himself as much as they serve others.
While overseas, he often reflects on his life in the United States.
“We get kind of isolated here and caught up often in our medical problems and healthcare system problems,” Smolinski said. “It is an eye-opening experience because you’re kind of shocked at how other people have to live compared to the standard that we have.”