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Connecting Over Smiles

Five Who Bring Smiles to Children's Faces in Colombia Learn They Share Ties to Einstein

This past year, five doctors who thought they were strangers embarking on an annual humanitarian mission to South America discovered they had something special in common – their ties to Einstein and the College of Medicine's strong commitment to global health and social medicine.

Dr. Menken
Dr. Menken (Courtesy of Robert Ryan)
Representing four decades of Einstein's history, Dr. Arthur Menken (Class of 1969) and intern/resident at Einstein-Montefiore from 1969 to 1974; Dr. Daniel Aronzon, a pediatrics resident at Einstein-affiliated hospitals from 1973-1977; Dr. David Fenner (Class of 1980) and Einstein intern/ resident from 1980 to 1984; Dr. Michael Simon (Class of 1992); and Dr. Andrew Jacono (Class of 1996) first met in 2006 while joining other healthcare professionals on a mission to Columbia, organized by Healing the Children Northeast (HTCNE), where they repaired cleft palates in underprivileged children.

"We'd been working together on the trips for five years and never really discussed our medical schools until this past trip in October," said Dr. Menken, who has operated a private practice in otolaryngology for more than 35 years and is the brother-in-law of Einstein board member Arnold Penner. "I knew that Dan had done his pediatric residency at Einstein and then found out David had been a student. A bit more asking around and we had a basketball team."

"Einstein is doing something right," noted Dana Buffin, HTCNE executive director. "The fact that, of the 11 physicians on this trip, 5 had ties to Einstein, speaks volumes. Einstein is certainly instilling a sense of philanthropy in its students."

Dr. Simon
Dr. Simon (Courtesy of Robert Ryan)
The Einstein alumni members agreed. "When you think of Einstein's strong commitment to social medicine, it's not really much of a surprise at all," said Dr. Jacono, who runs a private practice in otolaryngology, facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. "The clinical experience of working with underprivileged patients while at Einstein prepared me for these trips abroad.

He added, "It's very gratifying helping those in need, particularly babies and kids. I love that I have the ability to help these children get a good start in their lives when they have been dealt a tough hand."

Dr. Fenner
Dr. Fenner (Courtesy of Robert Ryan)
During each mission, the Einstein alumni spend approximately five days in Colombia, where they help repair cleft palates."This past year, we took care of 70 children, some as young as five weeks old," recalled Dr. Menken, who traveled with his wife, Carol, a former nursing supervisor at Montefiore. "It's difficult to turn away families who had traveled from all over the country – even by boat."

He added, "Since Carol and I speak Spanish, we found additional ways to give back, including opening an outpatient clinic to help patients deal with problems related to the ears, nose and throat. Once, we were able to deliver hearing aids to 15 to 20 children. Those little things we're able to do make these trips so special."

Dr. Fenner, who has had a private pediatrics practice for more than 25 years and learns Spanish from his Colombian patients during his visits, also finds the experience each year amazingly rewarding. "The outpouring of gratitude from these kids is overwhelming," he said. "You learn that regardless of their physical condition and the poverty, kids here are just like kids everywhere else. They just want to enjoy their lives and we help them get there."

Dr. Menken recalled one experience involving a 12-year-old patient with a giant swelling under his tongue. "No doctors would operate on him, even though the situation was potentially life-threatening. Our team took him to the operating room and cut open the swelling. Although he needed special care overnight, he recovered. That was three years ago, and he's growing into a fine young man. He brings a little gift whenever he comes to see us."

Dr. Aronzon
Dr. Aronzon (Courtesy of Robert Ryan)
Parents are just as grateful. "These parents once traveled for five days from a remote village in the mountains to have us take care of their child," said Dr. Jacono, remembering a surgery he performed on a six-week-old baby. "It was a very special moment in my career. I handed them their child and I could tell they were so appreciative of the work we were able to do. I'll never forget that moment."

These special moments and the sense of making a difference in people's lives have struck a deep chord with the doctors. "I started traveling to Colombia five years ago and have been going back ever since," noted Dr. Menken, who also has done pro bono work at a clinic in Poughkeepsie and, for 15 years, has delivered lunches for Meals on Wheels of Dutchess County.

Dr. Jacono
Dr. Jacono (Courtesy of Robert Ryan)
He and his fellow Einstein alumni believe in HTCNE's purpose to help children throughout the world receive medical care unavailable to them due to a lack of medical and financial resources. It takes almost a year to plan out trips to locations including Thailand, Peru, Jamaica and Colombia. The actual trips themselves are 5 to 10 days, conducive to the doctors' schedules, which allow them to take multiple trips.

"Though I'm very happy in my profession, traveling to places like Colombia so late into my career has renewed my commitment to and enjoyment of practicing medicine," said Dr. Fenner.

"Once they make a trip, their lives are changed forever," said Ms. Buffin.

To learn more about HTCNE and its mission, visit http://www.htcne.org/default/.

Posted on: Wednesday, March 21, 2012