In some parts of Africa, children born with cleft lips and palates are thought to have been cursed, and the children and their families are often ostracized. A simple surgery can change that. But the number of knowledgeable surgeons is limited, and hospitals are far beyond the reach of villagers in the remote parts of the continent.
Beloit physician Thomas Boeve is working to change that.
Boeve, who spent three years establishing a teaching clinic that performs the surgeries in Kenya, was in East Africa recently as part of a medical mission in South Sudan sponsored by the evangelical Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
"Lives are changed with a one-hour operation," said Boeve, an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat specialist, in Beloit. "You can take a 50-year-old who's been outcast by his family and community and in 50 minutes, without putting him to sleep, just numb up their lip and close it."
The result, Boeve says, is deeply moving for the patient and physician.
"They're given a mirror and they look at themselves. And the tears and the joy these people experience ... words can't even begin to describe it," he said.
Boeve, 47, has been going on these medical missions for years, first in Latin America, where he adopted his daughter in Guatemala in 2004, and later in Africa.
Some missions have been more dangerous than others. In northern Somalia, he said, physicians and volunteers traveled under cover and the protection of armed guards. A 2012 trip to South Sudan was canceled for security reasons after tensions heightened between that newly liberated country and Sudan.
Boeve went on back-to-back trips to a small hospital in Kijabe, Kenya, beginning in 2007, and "fell in love with the people there." He returned with his family in 2010 and spent three years establishing a clinic and teaching the cleft lip and palate procedures to other surgeons in the region.
"Because of its location, we could provide 2010 otolaryngology to a country that hadn't seen this for 40 million people," he said.
Samaritan's Purse approached him about mounting a mission into South Sudan shortly after that country gained its independence in 2011 after years of civil war. This one is his third trip since then.
As part of the mission, Samaritan's Purse is flying six physicians, nurses, support personnel and what is essentially a mobile surgical unit to a rudimentary teaching hospital in the capital of Juba. From there, the relief organization will fly patients from remote villages across the country.
Initially they were expecting about 85 patients of all ages, but it now looks like they'll see more than 100, said Ken Isaacs, vice president of government relations and international programs for Samaritan's Purse.
"The doctors will have a very busy week," he said.
The North Carolina-based relief organization, headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, makes it clear that its work is as much about saving souls as mending bodies. Though care is never contingent on a person's faith, Samaritan's Purse brings in chaplains and translators to all of its relief missions to evangelize the faith.
Though he takes his own faith seriously — and sees his work as an extension of that faith — Boeve says he's not there to convert anyone.
"If they want to know why I'm there, I'm happy to share that with them. But it's not about proselytizing," Boeve said.
"Saving souls, that's God's responsibility. Ours is to share God's love and follow the example of Jesus."