Dr. Andrew Jacono, the top New York facial plastic surgeon, offers pro bono surgery to children all over the world.
A Doctor and a Hero
Dr. Andrew Jacono was recently featured in Dr. Oz’s magazine, The Good Life. He discussed how he uses his personal time to visit the poorest reaches of the world to perform pro bono surgery. Dr. Jacono focuses on children who have been affected by cleft lip and palate deformities, and also offers care for those born without ear cartilage; a condition known as microtia. For those less fortunate, his expert pro bono services are nothing short of a miracle.
“Changing a face can change a life,” says Dr. Jacono. “Every year, I go on a few medical missions to countries including Colombia, Ecuador, and even Thailand. My task is to perform state-of-the-art procedures on children and adolescents born with congenital deformities. Cleft lips and palates are my specialty, but I am also very skilled at microtia surgery. The goal of these medical missions is, above all, to provide quality care to people who could not otherwise afford it.”
Dr. Jacono has a long history of empathy for those born with difficult-to-treat facial deformities. In fact, early experiences with these people inspired him to become a surgeon and make as big of a difference as possible. He notes how a third-grade classmate with a cleft lip faced discrimination, even though it was a condition over which she had no control.
“Before the girl had corrective surgery, no one would sit next to her on the bus,” says Dr. Jacono. “People would bully her, call her names, and make fun of her face. But after she got the treatment she needed, everyone wanted to sit next to her. It was incredible to see and made me want to help people that same way.”
Dr. Jacono Gives back
Over his long, successful career, Dr. Jacono has given back in a way that would make his third-grade classmate proud. He has embarked on dozens of medical missions with the Help Us Give Smiles (HUGS) Foundation and Healing the Children, both of which cover medical expenses for cleft lip, palate, and microtia patients. He has operated on more than 500 children abroad and aims to continue providing his services for years to come.
“In the United States, most of these children would get surgery and lead normal, happy lives,” notes Dr. Jacono. “But in countries where even basic healthcare isn’t guaranteed, a cleft lip and palate deformity can mean lifelong social ostracism. Treatment offers a fresh start and a lot of hope. This isn’t just the case for the children, but also for the parents. I remember when a father thanked me for fixing his child’s microtia—he explained that he knew firsthand how life-altering the operation could be. He revealed he’d been born with the same condition, and years ago, another HUGS doctor helped him. If I can provide that kind of outcome for other people by giving up just a few days, why wouldn’t I?”
What Are Cleft Lip and Palate Deformities?
For the uninitiated, cleft lip and palate deformities are congenital conditions that affect the way people appear. Often, the condition causes other complications, including difficulty breathing, eating, drinking, and even speaking.
More specifically, a cleft lip is a split, or separation, in the upper lip. It occurs when the tissues that make the lips don’t join completely in the womb. Often, this fissure can include the gums or the roof of the mouth. Cleft lip makes it difficult for children and adults to engage in normal social and biological activities.
A cleft palate, on the other hand, is an opening in the roof of the mouth that forms during fetal development. It can include either the hard palate, which is the bonier front portion of the mouth’s roof, or the soft palate, which is the softer back portion of the mouth’s roof.
In some cases, cleft lips and palates occur together, completely altering the structure and functionality of the inner and outer mouth. Worse, these conditions are quite common, occurring in about 1 in every 1,600 babies born in the United States. In some countries, these numbers are even higher.
Treatment Through Pro-Bono Surgery
“Cleft lip and cleft palate are life-altering conditions,” says Dr. Jacono. “The most discouraging fact about them is that they cannot be treated without surgery. They can certainly be managed, but until a child or adult has had a corrective procedure, their lives are likely to be gravely affected.”
Considering how serious these defects can be, it is no wonder that physicians like Dr. Jacono make the trek into foreign countries to offer top-of-the-line medical care. According to these heroes, the cost of long hours and exhausting days is well worth the outcome.
“There is nothing as heartening as seeing a patient come back the year after they’ve had surgery looking completely normal,” says Dr. Jacono. “That’s the reason why I go on these medical missions: to make a real difference in people’s lives. It reminds me of why I went into surgery in the first place.”