Doctor fixes faces, mends lives
Scripps Mercy outreach team brings surgical skills to Mexico
Dr. Thomas Vecchione has been practicing medicine since 1974. He is on the staff of Scripps Mercy Hospital and has a private plastic-surgery practice where he performs everything from tummy tucks to hand-trauma surgery.
The list of the procedures he can do, the places he has worked and the boards he serves on is long and impressive, but the explanation for why he travels to Mexico to fix cleft lips and palates for free is short and simple.
“It’s the best thing I do with my life,” Vecchione, 71, said. “This is the one thing I enjoy the most.”
Vecchione is a founding member of the Mercy Outreach Surgical Team, which has provided free reconstructive surgeries for Mexico’s neediest children since 1987. Between the programs in Tijuana and Central Mexico, the M.O.S.T. teams have made 65 outreach trips. Vecchione has been on 52 of them.
During the Mexico treks, a 45- to 50-member team of plastic surgeons, general surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and other medical personnel correct cleft lips and palates, fix missing ears and crossed eyes, and even operate to remove extra fingers and toes.
All team-members volunteer their time and usually cover a portion of their expenses. To help pay for the costs of supplies, medications and some travel, the organization is holding its annual “M.O.S.T. Mariachi Festival” fundraiser on Saturday at the Joe & Vi Jacobs Center in Fairmont Village.
Fixing a cleft palate can take 2½ to 3 hours, while removing an extra digit can be done in 20 to 30 minutes. But there is no time limit on the results, which is just one of the reasons Vecchione is in this for the long haul.
“When you see a 12-year-old girl with a wide-open cleft lip, that shouldn’t be that way,” Vecchione said during an interview at the Scripps Mercy Surgery Pavilion in Hillcrest. “And if you don’t fix it, she could spend the rest of her life hiding in a backroom somewhere. If we can fix it, we need to do that.”
The volunteer-driven organization was started by Pat Robinson and Judy Hames. The two Mercy Hospital nurses had been volunteering with surgical teams in Mexico and wanted to bring their colleagues into the feel-good fold.
Having spent time performing free surgeries in Calexico with a group from UC San Diego, Vecchione was an easy sell, as were fellow longtime M.O.S.T. doctors Lawrence McCarthy (also a plastic surgeon) and anesthesiologist Doug Arbon, both of whom are still M.O.S.T. regulars.
The Mexico program kicked off in the spring of 1989, and teams have made it down at least once a year ever since. The men and women of M.O.S.T. have conducted more than 7,000 surgeries in Central Mexico, along with more than 3,000 procedures at the Hospital Ingles in Tijuana and at Mercy Hospital itself. When the team goes to the town of Irapuato next month, Vecchione will be going with them.
“It just feels so good to do it. When you get a smile from one child or one mother, it’s worth it. It’s better than money. We all feel that way. That’s why we keep going back.”
One of the more memorable smiles belongs to Adriana Robles. In 1993, Robles was brought to a M.O.S.T. program in Zacatecas, where Vecchione operated on her cleft lip. The team brought her to Mercy Hospital a few months later so he could fix her cleft palate. Later, Robles and her mother immigrated to the U.S. to join Robles’ father, and when she turned 13, Vecchione fixed her nose.
Now, Robles is a 22-year-old Mira Costa College student who is hoping to be a nurse. The career is no coincidence.
“I see Dr. Vecchione as a doctor, but I also see him as a role model,” said Robles, who lives in Vista and is still in touch. “He makes so many life-changing opportunities for so many people, and that is something I hope I can do in the future as well. My story is just a little glimpse of what these doctors do, and if I can be just a little piece of that, it would be amazing.”
For Vecchione, the most wonderful thing about Robles’ story is that it is has such a familiar ring to it. It is the story of M.O.S.T., and he never gets tired of hearing it.
“So many of these kids, they’re in school and they’re studying different things, and it is so great to see that,” Vecchione said. “Other kids can be cruel when they see something they don’t understand, so the best thing we do is put them on a more even playing field. They are growing up poor, so they are already at the end of the line, so if you can help them, it makes a huge difference.”