Medical Missions: Healing Hands for Those in Need

From Top Doctors on LI

Scores of Long Island health professionals carve time out of their busy local practices to help heal those who lack access to quality health care. Here, four medical professionals share their inspiring stories of global medical volunteerism.

Dr. Agostino Cervone

Chief, General Robotic Surgery, Peconic Bay Medical Center (PBMC)

Once Dr. Cervone volunteered on his first medical mission in 2008, he was hooked. “Being able to make people better is so gratifying.”

He has been on missions worldwide, including a recent trip to El Salvador, where in a six-day period he and other staff from PBMC operated on 70 patients, fixing everything from hernias to the varicose veins people get from working in fields all day long.

“With the medical facilities in most poor countries, when someone needs treatment, unless it is a life-or-death emergency, it can take years to get something fixed,” he says.

Cervone also recalls a nine-year-old girl with a large, disfiguring facial mole. “The doctors in her country would never have done surgery because it’s an elective procedure, but it was ruining her life. When we took the bandage off days after removing the mole, she was ecstatic.”

The trip was conducted as part of a Huntington Station-based non-profit called Blanca’s House, which works to bring much-needed, quality medical care to countries and communities throughout Latin America.

“The human gratification for helping our fellow man is untouched by any other feeling. That inspires me to continue to go on these trips.”

Dr. Scott Wolfson

Allied Physicians Group

Pediatrician, Dr. Scott Wolfson, recently participated in a mission to Peru, and he says the poverty he saw was startling.

“They don’t have much access to health care or health education, and there’s no running water or electricity in their homes,” he says.

During his trip, he visited several rural mountain towns, conducting procedures ranging from simple skin care (most people, he explains, have very dry and chapped skin from the high altitude) to treatment for severe abdominal issues and other longstanding conditions that might have taken a year or more to get treated if the patient was able to travel to a major city. “Such a trip would be a huge undertaking, Wolfson explains. “For most people it would be next to impossible.”

The number one problem came as a surprise to this physician. “Most of the children I met were constipated. They lack easy access to water and fiber-filled foods. It’s very hard to function when you are severely bloated.”

He provided education to families, focusing on children’s health and diet so such chronic conditions could be avoided.

“The people lack money and material goods, but they are incredible people with strong communal bonds,” Wolfson observed. “They’re very interested in their family and improving their children’s health.”

The response was deeply moving, Wolfson says. “Just to have someone listening to their needs was new for them.”

Wolfson eagerly awaits his next trip. “The experience of learning how other people live in remote regions was its own reward,” he says. “This experience really opened my eyes to how fortunate we are in this country.”

Dr. Margaret Ames

Robert Matlach Dental, Huntington

For Dr. Ames, volunteering dental services for those in need had always been a part of her plan. She wasn’t sure how to make it happen until she attended a seminar in Texas where a dental hygienist was organizing a group of doctors to travel to the Dominican Republic.

Ames immediately signed on. When they arrived at a small rural village, there were lines of people waiting for treatment. “We set up in fields, churches—even a banana loading platform,” she says. “There was no running water or electricity, so we had to bring electric generators. This was a kind of poverty I had never seen.”

The patients—many of them children—were extremely grateful, she says. “It was very rewarding.”

Her next trip was to Belize, inspired by a girl named Damari whom she’d met while in Texas. Damari lost her leg in an accident in her hometown in Belize and had been treated at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in Texas.

“This wasn’t the area of Belize where people vacation,” says Dr. Ames. “It was extremely poverty stricken.”

Damari served as volunteer helper on the trip, and she and Dr. Ames grew so close that she hosted the young woman at her home for a year and a half while she underwent surgeries to get a new leg. Damari is planning to be a reconstructive plastic surgeon, just like the doctors who helped her.

Dr. Ames hopes to travel next to Africa. “There is a lot of help that is needed. I feel called to do this work.”

Dr. Andrew Jacono

New York Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery

Dr. Jacono chose his career as a plastic surgeon while in grade school when a girl on the bus with a cleft lip and palate deformity was teased.

“Kids were cruel, and nobody would sit next to her,” he says. “I decided I would. I wished I could help her.”

That experience set the stage for his career as a facial plastic surgeon and his desire to volunteer.

“As a father of four, I’m passionate about helping children across the globe,” he says. Jacono volunteers for numerous charity organizations that help children with limited medical and financial resources receive surgeries, including cleft lip and palate reconstruction. To date, he has completed surgeries on more than 500 children.

Aside from heading the New York Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery, Jacono serves as Senior Advisor to FACE TO FACE, a national project offering pro bono consultation and surgery to those with facial deformities and victims of domestic violence in the U.S. and abroad.

“Early in my career,I repaired the broken nose of a woman who said she had been injured in a car accident. Several months later, she returned, claiming she had broken her nose in yet another car accident. I later learned that the woman had been living in an abusive relationship and her broken noses were the result of domestic violence.”

Jacono averages about four weeks a year performing pro-bono surgery. “There is no better feeling than being able to give children and victims of domestic violence new faces and smiles,” he says. “It’s indescribable.”