Every day Sanford Health plastic surgeon Dr. Rif’ At Hussain uses his creativity and his surgical expertise to make children’s lives better.
A specialist in repairing cleft palate, a birth defect that leaves patients with openings in their nasal passages and upper lip, it is easy to see the way that his skilled hands help heal the faces and futures of the children he operates on.
But few things are as rewarding as the work he does with Sanford’s World Clinic, bringing healing to children in his homeland of Pakistan.
“How many times do you get to transform a life?” says the surgeon. “We get to make a human being look more human, to truly change the course of a life.”
A way to give back
Dr. Hussain, who was born in northwestern India and moved to Pakistan as a small child, came to the United States for surgical training and ended up practicing in South Dakota due to difficulties practicing medicine in his home country. The first plastic surgeon to do this type of work in the state, he chose his specialty because of the positive impact he could have.
“For all of us there are few things as important as the face,” he says. “It is the first thing everyone sees and it affects every part of life.”
Since 1975, he has been traveling back and forth on his own to perform surgeries on children and adults with cleft lip and palate. In 2012, his work became part of the outreach programs of Sanford World Clinics, part of Sanford’s commitment to improve health and healing internationally.
When the surgeon arrives in Pakistan, there are generally over 4,000 people and growing on a waiting list for an appointment. Every day he tries to see as many patients as he can, choosing the most severe cases for surgery.
He does as many as nine operations a day. He has also worked to train a local doctor during his visits, trying to teach the best surgical techniques to improve the local health care.
The conditions are often challenging. He works in a simple operating room with the most basic of surgical equipment. And much of his work is to repair poor surgeries done by less experienced doctors.
“We come up with creative solutions to handle the problems that arise,” says Dr.Hussain. “Fixing a cleft palate is a difficult surgery under the best of conditions, so we do our best to work with what is there.”
On one recent trip, he had a 12-year-old boy on the operating table when the power to the building went out. Dr. Hussain knew that he couldn’t just stop in the middle of a complicated operation to fix problems with an earlier cleft-palate reconstruction that another doctor had done on the boy.
“I told someone to go get a flashlight,” Dr. Hussain said. “I’ve got six more children on my schedule that day and I’m not going to stop until it’s done.”
Working intently with another person holding the light over his shoulder, Dr. Hussain finished the operation in the dark. He was able to move on to the next patient as the electricity came back on. And the boy’s surgery went well.
Dr. Hussain clicks on photographs on his computer of a baby girl he operated on during a previous visit. Her upper lip was split open all the way to her nose, leaving a large open gap.
In the next picture, the “after” shot taken just five days after the girl’s surgery, a beaming mother gently holds an infant with almost no signs of even an incision below striking dark eyes and a pert little nose. The little girl’s mother couldn’t quit crying after her operation, the doctor said.
“She told me, ‘God has sent you as an angel to fix my baby,’” Dr. Hussain said.
While he made a joke with the mother that he generally doesn’t think of himself as an angel, he knows that the girl’s new face will dramatically change her prospects. She now is capable of living normally in society and will be able to get married – something that is essential to her future in that culture.
Sanford’s World Clinic outreach program allows the surgeon to reach out to even more children in other countries. While he is able to organize the details of trips to Pakistan, having access to Sanford resources brings a new life to children across the globe.
“Their need is so much in so many places,” Dr. Hussain said. “When you see the look on a parent’s face, the way a child’s face has been restored, you know that what you can do is priceless.”