By Danielle Beurteaux
Surgery to fix a cleft lip—when the two sides of the upper lip are not joined—is a relatively quick procedure that takes about 30 minutes. But in many areas of the world, the medical know-how simply isn’t available, nor are the funds, and people with cleft lips are shunned. All for want of a simple operation.
“Some of these countries don’t even have a plastic surgeon,” says Russell Fuller, 67, president of Fuller & Thaler, a behavioral finance-focused investment manager in San Mateo, California, that runs $1.2 billion in assets in long-short equity, long-only and mutual funds. Fuller is board chair of ReSurge International, a foundation that provides free reconstructive surgery to people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa who otherwise wouldn’t have access. “In many of these countries, [people with] disfigurements, they’re really stigmatized,” says Fuller. “For example, they won’t let a lot of kids who have a cleft palate go to school.”
ReSurge was founded in 1969 (at that time it was named Interplast) and was the first international non-profit that offered free reconstructive surgery in developing countries. A ReSurge team of volunteer surgeons, nurses, pediatricians, translators, and others will arrive in a location and operate on a group of pre-screened individuals, performing two hundred-plus operations in the two weeks they’re there, usually in very basic medical environments. They’ll bring crates of equipment and donated supplies to use.
Cleft lips, cleft palates, reconstructive hand surgery, and other procedures are all in ReSurge’s repertoire. Burns present a particular challenge. In developing countries, where many cook over an open flame, burns are a big problem. Mothers and their children are at the highest risk. “Some burns they can fix in one procedure,” says Russell. “But a lot of burns take two and three and sometimes four skin grafts before the person is made whole again.”
Years in the field taught the organization that establishing educational opportunities through fellowships and local clinics was a more efficient way to help. “It’s really stupid to gear up, send about 16 people to one location for 2 weeks and then you have to go home,” says Fuller. A better idea is to help finance and train local doctors in reconstructive surgical techniques, he says. ReSurge has so far established 10 outreach centers in the communities they work, staffed by local medical professionals, where year-round care is available.
ReSurge also runs medical training programs. One, the Visiting Educator Program, funds doctors to work with local doctors in the areas where ReSurge is active, and another arranges overseas medical training for healthcare professionals. The third is an immersive program for a plastic surgeon to work with ReSurge for a year.
President and CEO Susan Hayes says Fuller has been an influential thought leader. “Change is hard for an organization and it takes an adept and well-respected, conscientious leader with a lot of integrity,” says Hayes. “People listen to him because they know his commitment is so great, his sincerity is absolute and his support is unwavering.”
Russell remains in awe of ReSurge’s medical volunteers. “That’s what got me hooked,” he says. “If these people were spending their own money, plus giving up their time, plus losing money in their practice to do this, and they have to pay to go, this has to be medicine for the right reasons.”
At a Glance: ReSurge
Medical missions: 29
Surgeries performed: 4,572
Revenue: $7.7 million
Expenses: $8 million
(All figures are for 2011)