A healing hand

Published 1:52 am Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Under ordinary circumstances, most people would be excited to get a free ride from actor Harrison Ford in his private airplane.

But Suffolk’s Dr. Craig Merrell wasn’t flying with Ford under ordinary circumstances. He was heading to an impoverished and devastated land.

Merrell is a plastic surgeon who spends most days in his Plastic Surgery Associates of Tidewater office on Harbour View Boulevard. Most of his practice is dedicated to breast reconstruction after cancer treatment.

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But more than a year of his life so far has been committed to doing work with Operation Smile, which has taken him on 30-plus missions to Morocco, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Romania, Haiti, the Philippines and Vietnam.

A before photo shows the need for cleft-lip surgery in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Merrell)

He flew with Harrison Ford into Haiti less than three weeks after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 100,000 Haitians, injured thousands more and obliterated many buildings.

Merrell operated on victim after victim and watched many, including a young boy, die from severe burns and other injuries, something he experiences very little in his medical practice.

“That was really tough,” he said. “I don’t deal with that in the U.S. hardly at all. Occasionally, someone will have a melanoma, and it spreads…”

Merrell went into medicine because of a “fundamental desire to help other people,” he said. A native of Northern Virginia, he moved to the area in 1983 and joined the medical group with Dr. William P. Magee Jr., founder of Operation Smile.

“That was one of the best things I ever did,” Merrell said. “He’s one of my heroes and also one of my best friends.” Merrell’s first trip with Operation Smile was in 1984, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I’ve lost count of how many actual trips I’ve gone on,” he said.

Most people know Operation Smile for its work giving free surgery to children in impoverished areas with cleft lip and cleft palate deformities. Repairing the clefts not only gives them their smile but also makes the children healthier and less likely to be ostracized in their communities.

Dr. Craig Merrell stands with actor and pilot Harrison Ford, who flew Merrell’s team to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the nation. It was a trip unlike any other he has made with Operation Smile, as the team found itself performing lifesaving surgery for people who had suffered severe trauma in the disaster. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Merrell)

“The face of Operation Smile is the child with a cleft lip that has been repaired,” Merrell said.

But the organization’s work often goes beyond that. In Haiti, for example, Merrell and other doctors amputated limbs that had been crushed by falling buildings during the earthquake and helped heal burns from the fires that raged in the aftermath of the quake.

And in the ordinary course of business, Operation Smile is dedicated to training surgeons in their home countries to perform the needed operations themselves. Merrell has been a driving force behind Vietnam’s blossoming program in microsurgery — the skill needed to, for example, replace a hand that has been accidentally amputated.

“The most important aspect of Operation Smile is the teaching aspect,” said Merrell, who in 1983 was the first physician in Hampton Roads fellowship-trained in microsurgery. “Vietnam’s microsurgery program is fabulous now.”

Merrell estimates he has saved or vastly improved more than 500 lives through his work with Operation Smile. But the greatest blessing he has attained through Operation Smile are his twin daughters, Anna and Sara, whom he and his wife, Teresa, adopted from an orphanage in Romania where he had been sent to look at other children as patients.

The girls had been given up by their birth mother, who had already had two children and did not think she could care for two more.

The girls were 13 months old when Merrell first met them, and they came home to the United States at 2 years old. They’re now 25.

“They’re a blessing I see every day,” said Merrell, who also has six biological children — all sons.
Merrell believes his faith has been enhanced by his work.

“It’s impossible to go on one of these trips and not come back believing in God. If you believe in God and you believe we are all His children, when you are serving someone with no hidden agenda, just the desire to serve someone else, in a way you’re serving God.

“The payback is when you look at four or six months, a year, 10 years down the road and realize how much better a person you are because you stepped out of your comfort zone and experience and you helped someone else.”