By BETSY BETHEL
Life Associate Editor
In the year since St. Clairsville internist Dr. Naba Goswami took his first life-changing trip to India to help perform cleft lip and palate surgeries with Operation Smile, the nation and the nonprofit organization raised enough money to convert a former public hospital into a new facility dedicated solely to those operations.
Dr. Alex Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., left, and Dr. Naba Goswami of St. Clairsville, right, are shown with a father and son in Guwahati, Assam, India, just before the son receives cleft lip surgery.
Goswami returned to India with Operation Smile in February and was present for the opening of the Operation Smile Cleft Care Centre in his home city of Guwahati in the state of Assam.
"Because of genetics and nutritional deficiencies, it is the biggest place in the world with this condition (cleft lip and palate)," Goswami said. He added that Operation Smile has worked closely with the government to facilitate the distribution of free prenatal vitamins to residents to help prevent the problem. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi presided over the dedication of the Cleft Care Centre at Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital and declared the state's intent to make Assam cleft lip-free within the next few years.
During two and one-half weeks in February, Goswami and about 200 other medical professionals -half of which were from the United States - evaluated 711 patients and performed 509 surgeries at the hospital. In addition, 27 local residents assisted as translators.
Since Operation Smile India was established in 2003, 7,000 cases have been evaluated and 2,996 patients have received operations. The target with the new facility, Goswami said, is 5,000 cases a year.
Operation Smile India is an independent affiliate of Operation Smile Inc., an international, nonprofit medical service organization founded in 1982. Since then, Operation Smile has treated more than 160,000 in 60 countries, with more than 5,000 highly trained medical volunteers donating their time and skills every year.
"It makes you feel good," Goswami said of his involvement. He returns to India a handful of times a year to volunteer in other capacities, including with an AIDS relief organization. He maintains a home there and is treated as a visiting dignitary by the government, provided with security guards and government transport.
A few years ago, Goswami moved back to India to start a hospital with the help of India's president, Rajiv Gandhi, with whom Goswami was friends. Gandhi was assassinated, however, before the hospital plans were established. Goswami said he and another doctor currently are putting together plans to open a cardiac hospital in Assam.
"In Assam, cardiology is not much advanced. Every two to three months, 200 children are sent away to different parts of India - three hours' flying time - for surgery," Goswami said. "The government pays for everything." The new hospital would reduce hardship on the families and expenses for the government, he said.
In addition to volunteering his time to Operation Smile in February, Goswami attended the golden jubilee anniversary celebration of the medical school from which he graduated in Assam. From the thousands of graduates over 50 years, the Guwahati Medical College administration chose two to honor for outstanding achievements. To his surprise, Goswami was one of them.
"I almost got a heart attack," he said.
For more information about Operation Smile, visit www.operationsmile.org.