Connections to Smiles
February 01, 2018
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Dr. Tetzlaff with a smiling patient

Connections can lead to wonderful possibilities. Thanks to Dr. Cataldo’s connection to a close college friend, Dr. David Tetzlaff, he became involved in Children’s Surgery International (CSI) in 2004. CSI is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit committed to serving children and families in underdeveloped countries. Their primary surgical focus is correcting cleft lip and cleft palates. This seemed like a natural confluence of interests. Not only does it fill Dr. Cataldo’s inherent need to serve others, CSI allows children to wear a genuine, no-holds-back smile – which would not be possible without the help of surgery. Thanks to the hard work of doctors, nurses and volunteers, the children reached can smile not only with their eyes, but with their mouths – also know as: mukha, afi, bouch, boca, fum or mieng.

To say Dr. Tetzlaff is compassionate would be an understatement. Helping people is a part of his daily life, but he takes it to another level. He packs up his is empathetic bedside manner, takes it across the globe and gifts it to the children and families he serves – that’s 20 mission trips and counting. Dr. Tetzlaff is currently CSI’s medical director. His wife, Dr. Naomi Tetzlaff, had a patient who volunteered on CSI’s board of directors. Connections. That’s how it all unfolded. Dr. Tetlaff’s first mission trip was to Peru in 2004. “Seeing the compassion, caring and teamwork of volunteers, I was hooked,” said Dr. Tetzlaff regarding his first mission.

Dr. Cataldo admires Dr. Tetzlaff and his willingness to give of his time and talents. After hearing firsthand about all of the praiseworthy work that CSI spearheads, Dr. Cataldo was eager to learn more and become a supporter. “It’s easy to be enamored with CSI and their mission,” says Dr. Cataldo, “They are helping children and families obtain surgery that would otherwise be financially out of reach for them. Not only is CSI granting smiles and allowing kids to the opportunity to feel more confident and be better able to absorb nutrition, but they are a teaching organization. Their goal is to no longer be needed, to work themselves out of a job in a given area. That’s remarkable,” says Dr. Cataldo, “CSI makes a tremendous impact with each mission.”

CSI’s mission: Children’s Surgery International is a Minnesota-based, nonprofit volunteer organization that provides free medical and surgical services to children in need around the world. Our care is safe, compassionate and culturally sensitive and benefits children who may have severely limited access to pediatric medical and surgical services. CSI fosters self-sufficiency through curriculum-based, hands-on training and education. We work with local surgical teams, doctors and nurses to build a sustainable foundation of essential surgical and medical skills. This means that children receive high-quality surgical care in their communities during our missions and in the future.

In the United States, it’s a rarity to see a person who has a cleft lip or cleft palate. Our hospitals have the resources and the means to repair these during infancy. The word cleft means a gap or opening where a gap or opening doesn’t belong. A cleft lip occurs when the soft tissues and upper jaw bones fail to fuse during the first 12 weeks of gestation, causing a gap in the lip that may extend into the nostril and the floor of the nose. This results in a dramatic facial deformity. A cleft palate occurs when the muscle and bones in the roof of the mouth fail to fuse, creating an opening between the mouth and the nose. A cleft palate makes breast feeding almost impossible, resulting in severe malnutrition. An unrepaired cleft palate also causes severe speech problems that can last a lifetime. Children can be born with a cleft lip, cleft palate or both. These conditions cause severe emotional turmoil resulting in parental guilt, family shame and social ostracization. In many countries, these children are hidden from public view, or worse – put to death.

Bagladeshi 22 year-old with her family post surgery.

The incidence of cleft lip, with or without cleft palate, varies over the globe. In the United States, cleft lip and palate are the fourth most common birth defects, affecting one in 700 babies. CSI has touched the lives of many in the countries of: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Liberia, Mexico, Peru, Tunisia and Vietnam. The need in the areas that CSI serves appears higher due to the lack of resources in those countries. Clefts occur more often in children of Asian, Latino and Native American descent. Cleft lip is twice as common with boys as girls. Clefts occur for a variety of reasons. Some are caused by environmental factors, such as the mother’s medication during pregnancy. Others are inherited through the family. Viral or other chemical exposure may be the cause in some situations. Most of the time the cause is unknown and not the fault of the mother or family.

A young Bangladeshi woman, age 22, rarely left her home due to her extreme cleft lip and palate, which disfigured her face. Her family was so embarrassed by their daughter’s deformity that when visitors came she was sent to the back of the house so she would not be seen. She was not allowed to attend school with her sisters. The CSI team performed meticulous operations which transformed this young lady, so that her appearance now matched her lovely spirit. When the mother saw her daughter for the first time after surgery, she wept, telling her daughter how beautiful she was. The CSI team’s work was validated, 100 times over. This is the life changing work which CSI trailblazes.

Since the nonprofit’s inception in 2002, there have been 1,000 volunteers who have served in nine countries. More than 2,300 children have received life-changing surgery. Thousands of hours of hands-on training, teaching and educational lectures have been provided to doctors, nurses and staff in the countries served. When you have the right connections the possibilities are boundless.