News and Stories from the Texas Medical Community


Austin Medical Professionals Give New “Smiles” to Nicaraguans

By on May 14, 2012 in Health News Texas, Pro Bono with 2 Comments

by Scott Prath, M.A, CCC-SLP/Speech-Language Pathologist at Bilinguistics

A team of more than 25 central Texas medical professionals and other volunteers performed 29 surgical procedures that included cleft lip and palate repair and reconstructive surgery for burn victims, during a weeklong medical mission to the central highlands of Nicaragua. The volunteers of Austin Smiles, an Austin-based plastic surgery foundation, provided much-needed medical services to the remote countryside.

Dr. Joseph Leary, an ear, noise and throat specialist at Austin Regional Clinic, inserts an ear tub in a young Nicaraguan boy.  Photo: Austin Smiles/Julie Flores

Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, is as hot and busy as any large Central American city. Minutes after leaving the capitol’s city center, Nicaragua opens onto a series of breathtaking landscapes. Heading east carries you to Granada, the first European city in mainland America. Built in the 16th Century, it still showcases Moorish-colonial architecture. A southward heading traverses an isthmus with volcanoes erupting from an enormous lake. A westwardly diversion lands you immediately upon the Pacific Coast with its black sand beaches, and heading north carries you into the lush highlands.

Austin Smiles arrived in Nicaragua in mid-March, and traveled north to the city of Matagalpa, a region known for its “eternal spring”. Cascading flowers lined both the hillsides and roads, in an area known for its robust coffee industry.

The Austin-based non-profit provides primarily cleft lip and palate repair reconstructive plastic surgery to the children of Austin and surrounding area, as well as medical trips to serve Latin America.

Approximately one in 700 babies is born with a cleft lip and/or palate because parts of the face and mouth failed develop properly in the early months of fetal life. A cleft lip is an opening in the lip. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth.

Due to genetic traits, poor medical care and lack of treatment, children with cleft lip and palate deformities and their families, are ostracized with no chance for a productive future.

A mother and child wait before surgery for unilateral cleft lip and palate procedure. Photo: Austin Smiles/Julie Flores

A team of 29 Texas medical professionals worked in the region’s one hospital for seven days treating patients that traveled as far as two day- many by foot – to reach the clinic. Radio broadcasts were used to notify locals of the medical team’s arrival.

Patients varied in age, from infants receiving attention to a cleft lip to a hand surgery on an 89-year old man. The team consisted of plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, an ENT, nurses, speech-language pathologists, translators, and other volunteers from the central Texas medical community. Surgeries varied from ear tube placement to full bilateral cleft repair.
With the vast expertise of the plastic surgeons on this mission, Austin Smiles was able to also help burn victims by re-grafting hand injuries, which previous surgeries had left with immobile fingers.

Nicaragua, known for its turbulent political past, is now regaining popularity for the same reasons that first attracted settlers and immigrants across the centuries. Nestled between Honduras and Costa Rica, it boasts gorgeous Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, temperate, lush growing seasons and an affable friendly population.

Decades of war and political unrest decimated Nicaragua’s economy and social system. Institutions such healthcare suffered greatly as educated masses fled the conflicts of the 1980s. Now with relative stability, Nicaragua is rebuilding its international relationships and professional base. Aid organizations like Austin Smiles contribute to the country’s continual improvement.

Two Austin nurses help the oldest patient seen by the surgical team after a hand operation. Photo: Austin Smiles/Julie Flores

The team of physicians and medical professionals of Austin Smiles perform more than 50 surgeries annually at Dell Children’s Hospital of Austin, in addition to its missions to Latin America. Since it was founded in 1987, the organization has completed over 4,500 corrective surgeries to children and those needing assistance.

Corrective surgery provided by the volunteer organization’s surgeons allows restoration of close to normal speech, hearing, eating, and enhancement of the breathing ability to a child.

Celebrating 25 years of service, Austin Smiles will conduct its 40th mission this year. On the heels of this successful mission to Nicaragua, it will leave for El Salvador in June and Guatemala in November. To learn more about Austin Smiles or to volunteer for their missions visit

About the Author:

Scott Prath, M.A, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist at Bilinguistics, an Austin-based speech therapy group that works with bilingual children.  Scott traveled with Austin Smiles to Nicaragua and acted as an interpreter, as well as conducted family counseling and post-surgical follow-ups with patients and their family on feeding and communications.  Scott can be reached at: [email protected].


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  1. Cleft Palate Work in Nicaragua | Bilinguistics | September 26, 2012
  1. Lynn Denton says:

    This was a terrific article, so inspiring…thanks so much and keep up the great work!

    Lynn Denton

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