The last time I saw Dr. Geoff Williams, in 2006, his foundation to help children with facial deformities was in its infancy. It was’t quite a one-man operation, but it wasn’t far from it.
Fast forward 15 years. Today, Williams’s International Children’s Surgical Foundation has medical workers from South America to Southeast Asia. He personally has performed more than 3,000 surgeries on some 2,300 children in 13 countries – all at no expense to the kids or their parents.
Along with Fr. Rick Frechette, who has devoted his life to helping the poor in Haiti (studying by candlelight to become a medical doctor so he could tend to their physical as well as their spiritual needs), Williams would get my vote for sainthood.
The pandemic has restricted his travel, giving him more time to spend at home and an opportunity for us to catch up. We met at the same place where I interviewed him 15 years ago, then his parents’ home in Boise. They’ve since passed away; the house is his now. Little seemed to have changed, with one notable exception – a playpen filled with toys in a corner of the living room.
Williams, 65, is a bachelor who spends most of his time working in other countries. The playpen and toys seemed incongruous until he explained the reason for them.
“They’re for Conchita’s little girl,” he said. “She’s three years old.”
Conchita Hernandez was five years old when the house where she and her mother lived in Oaxaca, Mexico caught fire. She got out but ran back to save her mother and was badly burned. Williams did surgeries to treat her burns, helped her with her homework, sent her to nursing school. Some 20 years later, he brings her to the U.S. several times a year for more surgeries. She and her daughter stay at his house while she recuperates.
How many doctors do you know who will cover your travel expenses, operate on you for free and let you stay at their home while you recover?
Williams grew up in Boise. He went to medical school at the University of Utah, studied surgery there and at Vanderbilt University and studied plastic surgery at the University of Texas in Galveston. He received additional training in Taiwan and at Stanford University. He could have had a comfortable private practice. Instead, he chose a less lucrative but arguably more rewarding path. He was doing a fellowship in Taiwan when he was invited to join three Chinese doctors on a medical mission in Vietnam. It was a turning point in his life.
“We went into a poorly lit gym where about 200 mothers were waiting for us, all mothers of kids with cleft palates. Because I was the tallest and the only westerner, they pressed me against the wall and held their kids up to my face. It was like a melee. Sadly, we were only there for two days and only did 20 operations. I remember looking at the lights in the countryside from the plane as we were leaving and thinking of all those mothers who had been turned away. That’s when I got the idea to volunteer full time in poor countries.
“I planned to do full-time volunteer work for two years, get it out of my system and come back to the U.S. to start a practice, but in that time I accumulated lots of complicated cases that required a long-term commitment for more surgeries. Kids would ask me when I’d come back. Partway through, I realized I could never come back and do a full-time practice. That’s when I started thinking about starting the foundation.”
Local hospitals and doctors helped.
“St. Al’s started donating supplies. It could have been a nightmare without that. St. Luke’s also stepped in later, and a there’s group of doctors in the area who go with me sometimes.”
You’ve probably received donation requests in the mail from charities who do work similar to what Williams does. We’ve all read the literature, seen pictures of the children. What we don’t often know is the kids’ stories.
One of Williams’s patients was a teenager named Maria, in the Philippines. Her face was so deformed that even with his years of experience he was “aghast” when he first saw her. She didn’t just have a cleft palate. Hers was a “global deformity,” clefts running all the way up to her eyes. Temporarily speechless, Williams was trying to decide how to respond to her when a co-worker told him she’d just graduated from high school.
“I could not believe what I had just heard, that a girl with such a deformity would be so brave as to go all the way through school to the point of graduation. … I immediately saw Maria in a different and new light. I felt as though I was sitting in a hallowed place in front of this 18-year-old who had, I am sure, gone through so much teasing, marginalization and outright ridicule, day in and day out, to attend and finally graduate from high school.”
The members of his team gave up their day off for Maria’s surgery. It took eight and a half hours. The girl with the face that left him aghast now has a face with a smile.
Another Filipino girl, a seven-year-old named Rosemarie, had one of the saddest faces he had ever seen.
“She had a look of a child who had been teased mercilessly and had begun to feel as though every day at school was a day of unpleasantries. She had a forlorn look, more so than the other kids we see. I wondered if anything we did for her could ever improve such a sad face.”
After her second surgery, he asked her to return the following year for the foundation’s speech therapy session. She said she would, but didn’t. Refusing to accept a no-show, Williams and his team procured a van and set out to find her.
All they had to go on was the name of her village, and her home wasn’t even in the village. It was deep in a jungle. They were about to give up when they saw her, walking down a road. She apologized for not attending the therapy session and promised to come the next year. And, after years of being teased at a school, the girl with the sad face told them she had decided to become a teacher.
It was an example, he said, “of the change that can come on the inside when the outside is fixed. And how the four hours of operating for the cleft lip was worth the time and backache.”
Williams has brought smiles to faces in India, Kenya, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Tanzania, the Philippines, China and Vietnam. He was mugged in Mexico. In Peru, he treated a young man who had had a grenade blow up in his hand. In Mexico, he operated on a man whose chest had been branded by a cartel.
The foundation he started in Boise now has medical workers in Bolivia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Vietnam, he trained a young surgeon to do cleft palate surgeries. She in turn is training other doctors, so his work is having an international ripple effect.
Though the surgeries are free for the patients and their parents, travel costs and other expenses are ongoing. The foundation relies on donations. To help, click on icsfoundation.org or send a check to ICSF, P.O. Box 4594, Boise, ID 83711-4594.
I asked Williams whether he had any regrets about choosing a life of endless travel and work in poor countries over a cushy private practice.
“I think the main regret is not having a normal social life or circle of friends. That, and I’ve always gotten by on just the basics. I still have the same car I’ve had most of my life, a 1992 Honda. I still drive it.”
His priorities have nothing to do with living in a mansion or driving a Mercedes. The payoff for his travels (he has a million and a half frequent fliers miles with United Airlines) and long hours at operating tables is “the change in the lives of these kids, to know that we’re giving them a new life. And not just them but their mothers, their families. When a child is born with a deformity, the whole family grieves.”
Soon he’ll leave for Bolivia on yet another medical mission. At 65, he isn’t slowing down at all.
“I get asked all the time if I’m going to retire” he said. “The answer is no. As long as my hands can hold the instruments, as long as my eyes can see to do the operations and my neck can hold my head up, I want to keep doing this. I realize age will eventually catch up, but for me to say I’m going to retire? I can’t see myself ever doing that. That would be the saddest day of my life.”