When Dr. Mark Singleton was asked to join a surgical mission trip in 1986, he was intrigued by the thought of using his skills as a pediatric anesthesiologist for those in need.
It was his first year of private practice in San Jose, California. His friend, Dr. Larry Berkowitz, encouraged Mark to join him on his next surgical mission trip to La Ceiba, Honduras. Larry, a plastic surgeon, had done his residency with Interplast founder Dr. Donald Laub at Stanford. Through his Interplast trips with Dr. Laub, Dr. Berkowitz had established an enduring relationship with the hospital in La Ceiba, as well as with many generous individual citizens of the town.
“I knew of the groundbreaking work being done by Dr. Laub and Dr. Berkowitz,” said Dr. Singleton. “Dr. Laub was a pioneer in reconstructive medicine and his passion for philanthropy and innovative surgical techniques was and remains exceptionally well regarded.”
Dr. Singleton joined Dr. Berkowitz on the trip, which turned out to be the first of many trips to La Ceiba over the next twenty years. Much of the surgical mission work being done was due to support from Standard Fruit (now Dole Food Company). Standard Fruit was headquartered in La Ceiba, a wonderful coastal location that provided a great shipping route to New Orleans for fruit distribution.
The twenty years that Dr. Singleton visited were idyllic times in Honduras. The crime was low, the town was bustling and the work was exceptionally rewarding. At that time Interplast didn’t have many employees, so much of the trips’ logistical work was done by the surgical volunteers themselves.
In La Ceiba, however, they had Margaret Beckman. Margaret’s husband had worked for Standard Fruit and she would make all the arrangements for the incoming surgical teams, which included accommodations with local families, dinners and weekend trips.
“I would spend two weeks in Honduras on these trips. That would give us one weekend of rest where were able to visit wonderful areas of Honduras like the Mayan ruins at Copan, and the Bay Islands which had a unique vibe that harkened back to the time of pirates. I would bring my family before or after the missions, and you really got to know the local people. They became friends. I looked forward to going back every year.”
One patient Dr. Singleton specifically remembers is Ever. Ever was a young boy when he came to the hospital for a large fibrous dysplasia tumor on his forehead. While the tumor was benign, as it continued to grow, it would cause great damage to Ever’s eyesight. It would need to be removed, but Dr. Singleton and his team quickly recognized that the surgery would be very complicated and dangerous. He and the surgical team urged Interplast to arrange for Ever to have his surgery in the United States. Interplast paid the travel and medical costs for Ever and his mom, a single mother who supported them by selling lunch to fruit workers.
While in the US, Ever and his mother became very close to Dr. Singleton’s family. “I had a son Ever’s age,” he says. “They would play and we would spend a lot of time with them. They became a part of our family.”
Ever’s complicated procedure was a success. He made a full recovery and he and his mother were able to return to Honduras.
In part due to the political climate and safety concerns, ReSurge stopped going to Honduras some time ago. But that doesn’t mean that Dr. Singleton has hung up his ReSurge volunteer hat. Now in semi-retirement, he continues to go on surgical mission trips all around the world including several places in Africa and Vietnam.
“When I work with residents and we talk about the importance of professionalism in their careers, I tell them that the best way to maintain humility, personal fulfillment and avoid burnout, is to find volunteer opportunities and use your skills to help others. It really does make all the difference.”