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Northwestern University

Hooked on Medical Missions, Three Alumni Take the Purple to Nicaragua and Beyond

Making a sling for a toy rabbit was just one of the unexpected tasks Laura Retson performed while on a recent medical mission with her father, Dr. Nicholas Retson, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. But helping people heal sometimes includes more than performing surgery. Sometimes it means listening to people’s stories and responding creatively.

“Nelsi was my little buddy,” says Laura of the nine-year-old Bolivian girl whose severely burned hand meant she couldn’t contribute to her family. With nine children, her parents could not afford to feed her and had to put her in an orphanage. “Nelsi was embarrassed by the sling she had to wear after the surgery, so I made a sling for her stuffed rabbit, and then it was okay.” On the duo’s second visit to Bolivia, they taught Nelsi through therapy how to maximize use of her hand. Laura happily reports that the child did indeed go back to her family a few months later and can now contribute to their work.

Laura has accompanied her father on six medical missions over the past four years—to Honduras, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Crosscurrents spoke with the volunteers in early October when Dr. Retson, his wife, Donna, and Laura drove from their northwestern Indiana home to Evanston for the Northwestern-Purdue football game. Avid fans, Dr. Retson holds two degrees from Northwestern (Weinberg ’71 and Feinberg ’75), and Laura graduated from the College in ’08, the second Retson child to do so.

“The Nicaragua mission was my 33rd—I started in 1990, in Guatemala,” Dr. Retson tells us. “But on our most recent trip we had the pleasure of working for the first time with Dr. Alex Bart (Weinberg ’63, Feinberg ’69), an anesthesiologist from LaGrange, Illinois. He and Laura and I traveled together to the town of Esteli, Nicaragua in early August, where our team operated on 28 patients in five days, mostly for cleft lip and cleft palate, but also for burns and congenital hand problems.”

Laura is eager to talk about the children she has encountered, including one little girl who was crying after surgery to repair her cleft lip:

“When we told her we’d give her something for the pain, she said she was crying not because of pain but because, now that her lip was fixed, she would be allowed to go to school and play with the other kids… She was just so happy!”

Laura’s father explains, “Cleft lips and palates are a significant social problem for these children. There are a lot of superstitions related to the condition: Some people will say that the child has been touched by the devil. So the parents will keep the child at home all the time, away from other people.”

Laura displays photographs from the trips to Nicaragua last summer and Bolivia a few months before that. In one picture she’s holding a small boy with enormous eyes. He’s Freddie, only a year and a half old, and one of the most severe cases the pair saw in Nicaragua, with a cleft lip on both sides and a cleft palate extending into the bone. And he has other medical problems, too.

“We hope to bring him here to the United States,” says Dr. Retson. “Many of the children can be helped significantly during our trips to the countries where they live, and it’s safer for them and more efficient for us. We can help many people there who don’t normally have access to doctors, but Freddie will need more extensive work.”

Laura is happy to relate that Freddie is expected in the U.S. by the end of the year for a four- to six-month stay. A large team of volunteers await his arrival and will provide him not only with surgical care but with a foster home for the duration of his visit.

Dr. Retson explains that the medical group often works with adults as well as children. “Ideally we would repair a cleft lip when a baby was three months old, and a cleft palate at twelve months. But some people with clefts, who live in the rural or mountainous areas, are much older. Some have simply never seen a doctor before.”

Counting both on-site evaluations (lasting a few days), and medical missions (of one to two weeks), Dr. Retson has traveled to Ecuador, Mexico, and India one time each, Bolivia twice, Guatemala six times, Nicaragua eight times, and Honduras eighteen times. He has worked with various sponsoring organizations, including Healing the Children, Lions’ Clubs International, Esperança, and his own non-profit corporation, Healing, Health, and Hope, which he established in 2004.

He says organizing the trip is the hardest part—recruiting a team of nurses, support people, and sometimes pediatricians, dentists, and medical students. Supplies like gloves, sutures, and many other items are in large part donated by medical personnel in various hospitals in northeast Indiana who are aware of Retson’s projects. The team also needs a point person in the destination country, he says, to provide an operating space in a hospital or clinic, and to notify those who need help, both new and former patients.

Upon arrival, the team needs to teach new procedures to the doctors and other local medical personnel. Most important, they need to be willing to accept the challenges they encounter: occasional power failures in the operating room (the nurses carry flashlights) or cats and dogs who wander the hospital’s hallways. Unexpected patients who show up for surgery at all hours test Dr. Retson’s mantra that “we can always do one more.” He and his team have been known to work until 2 a.m. to fit everyone in.

Says Laura, of the medical team, the patients, and their families, “You are strangers at first, from different countries, different economic backgrounds. But you begin to look after each other, and share the care of the children, share food together. You become a family.”

If Dr. Retson is a problem-solver with an independent and flexible mind, he credits at least some of that to his Northwestern professors. He was a mathematics major in the College, as was his mother before him, and Laura after him. From the math department he particularly remembers Professor Leonard Evens and his advanced algebra class. “He taught us that to solve a problem, you need to look at it from many angles.”

He got to know Professor L. Carroll King during freshman chemistry. “He taught me how to be a scientist, that things don’t always turn out right the first time, that often you have to go back and look at what you’ve done again.”

He also delighted in the classes of Professor Bergen Evans, who was both an English professor and a television personality. “His Introduction to Literature was a very popular class held in Tech Auditorium,” Dr. Retson recalls. “People who weren’t in the class would just show up; they’d all come to listen. Professor Evans always tried to look at things from a different point of view from the usual. He taught us that it’s necessary to form your own opinions, and not always go along with the crowd.”

“I didn’t have any good teachers at Northwestern; I just had great teachers,” Dr. Retson says. “And I learned that ‘impossible’ is just an opinion.”

Laura recalls the excitement of helping organize Dance Marathon during her years at Northwestern. Her older brother, Brian, had been involved in DM as a dancer; Laura joined the Finance Committee, which made use of her math skills and her enthusiasm and energy as a fund raiser. She remembers particularly her experience during senior year, when Dance Marathon raised over $900,000 for Bare Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation. She says, “Northwestern kids always took advantage of opportunities to volunteer; there was always a chance to do something for someone else.”

Her favorite class at Northwestern was a Freshman Seminar in medical ethics taught by Mark Sheldon. “It was the best class; I could talk and learn about medical issues, and Dr. Sheldon is an expert in the field. He was also my advisor, and encouraged me, even though I wanted to become a doctor, to major in mathematics, which was my favorite subject.”

Since graduating two years ago she has been working in her father’s medical office, arranging medical missions, going on missions, and, most recently, applying for medical school.

The third member of the Nicaragua team, Dr. Alex Bart, spoke to us in his hometown of LaGrange in mid-October. He recounts that his volunteering began with a five-week mission in Malawi in 1990. Over the years, he has worked in Brazil, St. Lucia, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bangladesh, for a total of 39 missions, each lasting from one to six weeks. The mission in Bangladesh was a special pleasure, he says, because he was able to visit his oldest son, who was living and working in that country at the same time. But he thought his volunteering had come to an end when his previous associate on these trips, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, passed away in 2006. That’s when a Northwestern connection, Ben Porter from the Office of Alumni Relations and Development, came to the rescue and introduced him to Nicholas Retson.

“I visited Dr. Retson in Indiana,” says Dr. Bart, “and when he needed an anesthesiologist on his team in Nicaragua, I was ready to go. We had a good collection of patients to work on, and the clinic went very well.” The three Northwestern grads plan to collaborate on future medical missions.

Like the Retsons, Dr. Bart was clearly moved by little Freddie, who came to the clinic with a severe cleft lip and cleft palate.

“Kids with clefts generally learn to eat and do grow up, but they are frequently social outcasts; they get teased, they stay home, and the families are ashamed of them. But this hiding of the child was not the case with Frederico—Freddie,” Dr. Bart says with a smile. “His father took that child everywhere with him. He was proud Freddie was such a good kid, and he wanted him to be part of his society.”

Dr. Bart’s path to a medical career began at Chicago’s Lane Tech High School, where his biology teacher was a Northwestern graduate who persuaded his father that he should go to college.

“My teacher knew Dr. Ray Watterson, the chair of the Biological Sciences Department, and he became a mentor,” Bart says. “Dr. Watterson gave me work two summers on National Science Foundation projects and encouraged me to go on to medical school. I received scholarship aid for medical school, and I contribute now to that kind of scholarship.” He met his wife, Mary, when he was an intern at Wesley Hospital and she was a nurse. They have three sons. Mary continued to work in public health, and eventually as a hospice/home care nurse in LaGrange.

“Northwestern was a good fit for me,” says the doctor. “I’m happy I had a chance to go to college in the first place. I relish the fact that I had a liberal arts education, that I was able to take courses outside my biology major, able to sing in the choir. I enjoyed taking music classes in Lutkin Hall. I studied German too, and was able to use it recently when visiting family in Switzerland.

“I enjoyed my years in medicine,” says Bart, who is now retired. “But I also find that taking care of people on a voluntary basis, especially really needy people on these medical missions, is satisfying in a deep and solemn way. There have been many times, when I’m watching a child having an operation that will make a big difference in his or her life, and I think, ‘This is a good way to be spending this moment.’”

Dr. Retson and Laura Retson, who are currently planning three more missions for the coming year, would surely agree.

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