A Plastic Surgeon’s Medical Mission

Khalique Zahir’s medical training has taken him to many a forgotten place.

Photo by Skip Brown

The term “plastic surgery” often brings to mind procedures such as face-lifts, tummy tucks, breast augmentation or rhinoplasty. But for some of Khalique Zahir’s patients, it’s about much more than aesthetics.

Most days, Zahir goes to work as chief of plastic surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church and maintains a private practice with offices in Virginia and Maryland. However, there are a few weeks every year when he breaks from that routine, operating on patients who can pay him nothing other than a “thank-you.”

It all started nine years ago when Zahir traveled with three other doctors to an oral and maxillofacial hospital in Khartoum, Sudan. The medical workers at the facility were trained to take care of teeth, but not to perform corrective surgeries for problems like cleft lips or palates—common birth defects that can contribute to feeding, hearing and speech problems. In the developing world, they also carry a social stigma, particularly in girls.

“The newspapers had reported that American doctors were coming,” recalls Zahir, whose traveling companions included one other plastic surgeon and two anesthesiologists. “When we got to the hospital, we discovered literally hundreds of people waiting in the parking lot. They had been waiting there for weeks, many of them traveling for two to three weeks from all over the country. Parents were begging us to help their children.”

In the six days that followed, Zahir and his team would use the portable medical equipment that they had brought with them to perform 61 surgeries on patients ranging in age from 1 month old to 21 years old. “I realized then that 15 to 20 minutes of my time could truly change a life forever,” he says.

This would be the first of many trips he would make to developing countries on behalf of the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), a 50-year-old association of American-Muslim physicians, dentists and other health care workers that provides networking, mentoring and relief aid overseas. In addition to surgeons, the group also mobilizes volunteers who provide postoperative care. Medical students and hospital residents often join in its efforts.

“The outgoing expression of your faith, in my opinion, is how you live your life,” says Zahir, who grew up in West Virginia and is Indian by heritage. Though his trips abroad are arranged by IMANA, he says he often finds himself working alongside doctors of all faiths: “Muslims, Jews, Christians, Mormons, you name it. Our shared mission is what we can do to help.”

Today, Zahir travels an average of four times a year to countries including Bangladesh, Jordan, Haiti, the Philippines and Ghana. It’s not uncommon for his surgical team—which can range from five to 20 people—to see as many as 200 patients in a single day and perform a staggering 50 to 60 surgeries per day.

“There are 7.5 billion people in the world, and doctors are plenty, but not always accessible, especially in [developing countries],” says the McLean resident and father of four. “Sudan has a population of 40 million, but they only have seven plastic surgeons in the entire country. I have seven just in my building at [Inova] Fairfax Hospital.”

In addition to cleft-lip and palate surgeries, Zahir performs a lot of burn reconstruction procedures. “In the Third World, people commonly use kerosene to cook and their clothing is often polyester-based,” he explains, “which means that when an accident happens, the fabric just sticks to the body. Local people might be able to treat the wounds properly, but they often aren’t equipped to fix the scarring and subsequent complications.”

Burns that are not treated immediately can result in contractures (a shortening of the muscle, tendon or scar tissue), which leave the affected areas damaged and unusable. Contractures in the fingers and hands, for example, cause the fingers to curl up, inhibiting the fine motor skills that are needed for eating, writing or other activities.

This was the case for one 5-year-old boy in Bangladesh, who couldn’t walk or use his hands after accidentally crawling over hot coals in a cooking fire as a toddler. Zahir grafted his scars to restore the use of his fingers and hands.

“The last time I saw him he was walking again,” the doctor says, noting that his team doesn’t just “operate and walk away.” They often return to the same places year after year and see the progress their patients have made over time.

For certain families, the promise of their return also brings hope. Many hospitals, like the one in Khartoum, have established waiting lists for patients who did not receive treatment the previous year because the visiting doctors ran out of time. They end up being first in line when the physicians return.

Volunteering is now a family affair in Zahir’s household. His wife, Lubna, is an internist who takes mission trips to Haiti. Their daughter, Sara, a student at UVA, joined her dad on a trip to Sudan two years ago and is now interested in pursuing a career in medicine. “It’s made a huge impact on all of us,” Zahir says. “In America, how people are cared for is often based on whether they’re insured or not, or financial reimbursement. But when you are able to operate on a tiny child in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere…or provide health care for hundreds of kids for free, it can’t help but change your focus.”

Today, he says, elective cosmetic procedures account for only 30 percent of his practice. The rest of his time is spent on cases such as post-cancer reconstruction, or hand surgeries to restore function after workplace injuries.

And humanitarian missions abroad. “When I’m on a trip, I see immediately how my work is changing a life,” Zahir says. “I get a smile. I get a thank-you. And that’s more than enough reimbursement for me.”

Kristyn Kusek Lewis is the author of the novels Save Me and How Lucky You Are. She is a frequent contributor to national and local magazines.

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