Much more than smiles

Published 8:51 pm Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A young girl in the Philippines was four years old when a fire burned her leg from her thigh to her calf. As it healed, the scar tissue overcame her leg’s natural shape and caused it to heal in a bent position. Learning to walk from a crouched position, she lived life at knee level.

When Dr. Craig Merrell met her in the Philippines, during a trip with Operation Smile, he knew he needed to help her walk again.

After taking her into surgery and opening her leg up, he found he was unable to perform the surgery in the makeshift operation room.

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“It just about broke my heart,” Merrell said. “I just cried. She woke up exactly like she’d gone under, except now she was in an incredible amount of pain. I couldn’t leave her like that.”

Instead, Merrell brought the girl to the United States, where he was able to successfully perform the operation.

“She told me that on her 19th birthday — for the first time in 15 years — she danced at her birthday party,” Merrell said.

While Operation Smile has been helping children with cleft lips and palettes smile, eat and live normal lives since 1982, for Merrell, a volunteer, his work extends beyond the smiles.

While Merrell has done his share of cleft surgeries, he has performed several detailed, reconstructive microsurgeries — many taking 10 hours or more of surgery — during his nearly 30 years of volunteering with Operation Smile.

He was recently awarded the organization’s Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award for his efforts.

A Suffolk citizen, Merrell has raised his family of eight children with his wife in Suffolk and is president of his practice, Plastic Surgery Associates of Tidewater, located at Harbour View Health Center.

Merrell credits his success to God and the support of his family, many of whom have traveled with him several times.

Some people, he acknowledged, think of leaving the office behind to travel to the Philippines, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Romania, Vietnam and Haiti as a vacation.

“There are a lot of words for it,” Merrell said. “Vacation is not one of them.”

For every trip he goes on, Merrell has to gradually shut down his office over the period of a month or two and travel for hours before the work begins.

More than 1,000 pounds of supplies are unpacked, operating rooms are set up and the hundreds of people are prescreened who have come to the location hoping the doctors can help them or their loved ones.

Then the work begins.

“There are so many heartbreaking cases,” Merrell said. “There is so much suffering, but it’s rewarding to help relieve some of that. But you have to just go forward and just do the job. You have to push through. After, you return, you just crash and burn. It is certainly draining, but because people’s lives change it’s exhilarating. You get back to the States though and you’re back on duty. You’re a dad, doctor and clergy member.”

His latest trip with Operation Smile required him to leave with just a few days notice.

“When the earthquake hit, I called him up and he came down,” said Lucas Carlson, Operation Smile program coordinator. “He has a reputation due to his past dedication. I know he’d drop everything.”

“I heard about what happened in Haiti and let them know if they needed anything to let me know,” Merrell said. “I cancelled my surgeries and left. I’ve never seen so much suffering my life.”

The work is grueling and rarely pretty, but through his work Merrell has given new life and opportunities to people.

One woman who came to him had acid poured on her by a jealous husband, but four surgeries later, her face had been reconstructed, she was re-married and had a four-year-old girl. He was able to put a bone back into a boy’s arm, bring to life a young man’s dream to play the pan flute and make whole a young woman’s face, which was paralyzed on one side.

“I’m grateful to have the vehicle of Operation Smile to use my talents in the medical field to do things for people that otherwise wouldn’t be done,” Merrell said. “When I first started, I had faith it would be good. You go out knowing you’ll lose two months of income, but it’s the right thing to do. To him that much is given, much is required. If you’ve been given something, you need to pass it on.”