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Woodbury doctors, volunteer travel to China for cleft surgeries

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Woodbury resident Mary Del Toro doesn't have any medical background, but that didn't stop her from traveling to China last month for a medical mission trip with the Love Without Boundaries Foundation, where orphans and impoverished children received lifesaving cleft surgeries.

"I was just there to hold babies," she said. "I can be a mom to kids, it doesn't matter if they're my own or not, because it just comes naturally."

Del Toro wasn't the only Woodbury resident to travel to Kaifeng, China, Woodbury resident Dr. Kathy Clinch also went on the mission trip.

Clinch is a pediatric anesthesiologist with Midwest Surgery Center in Woodbury.

Clinch's colleague at the Midwest Surgery Center, Rosemount resident Christopher Tolan, served as one of the lead surgeons during the trip.

"It's the opportunity to utilize a skill that you have that might not be available to kids in other countries," Tolan said. "These orphans otherwise wouldn't have the luxury of having surgery."

The Love Without Boundaries group, nine surgical staff and 14 volunteers, traveled to Kaifeng April 13-17.

Love Without Boundaries

Love Without Boundaries' Medical Program provides surgeries and medical care for thousands of orphaned and impoverished children throughout China.

Some procedures that Love Without Boundaries performs include cleft palate and lip repair, heart surgery, and orthopedic care and evaluation.

Midwest Surgery Center has been participating in mission trips with Love Without Boundaries since 2006.

This year's mission trip was the fourth such trip to Kaifeng.

A cleft lip is a physical split or separation of the two sides of the upper lip and appears as a narrow opening or gap in the skin of the upper lip.

A cleft palate is a split or opening in the roof of the mouth.

Clefts can be life threatening to children because "without a palate or without a lip, a baby can't form a suck, so they can't breastfeed or bottle feed," Clinch said.

Cleft lips and cleft palates are congenital malformations that usually develop around

Sixth or eighth week of life in the womb.

"There can be family-inherited history," Tolan said, "but it can also happen sporadically."

Clefts occur in 11.5 per thousand births, Clinch said.

Corrective surgeries primarily include reconstructive surgery.

"It's a little bit of artistry to achieve a very reasonable aesthetic outcome," Tolan said.

Cleft correction in China

This year marked Del Toro's third trip to Kaifeng to assist with Love Without Boundaries as a volunteer.

It was actually Clinch, one of Del Toro's good friends, who convinced her to go.

"She told me that I had to go on one of these trips," she said.

It wasn't that hard of a sell for her to pick up and head to China however since Del Toro is on a mission to give back.

"I had colon cancer eight years ago and the Woodbury community helped my family so much," she said. "I knew that someday, somehow I would be able to give back and when Clinch asked me to go on this trip, I knew I could do this because I can hold babies."

A typical day in Kaifeng for the surgical team and volunteers would be to catch the bus that would take them to the hospital at 7 a.m.

The surgical staff would look at the schedule for the day and get ready for the day's surgeries.

Cleft lip surgeries take around a 1-1/2 hours and cleft palate surgeries take between 2-1/2 hours and three hours.

While at the hospital, Del Toro would help keep children entertained before and after surgery, in addition to assisting the surgical staff in the operating room.

"It's almost surreal," Del Toro said. "Emotionally, you really have to be able to handle it because you see a lot."

Some days the team wouldn't get back to the hotel until late into the evening.

"It's a long day," Del Toro said. "But your adrenaline just keeps you going."

Back at the hotel the team comes back together for dinner and laughter.

"If we weren't laughing, we'd all be crying," Del Toro said. "The docs just pull it out of you."

Life-changing procedures

By the end of the trip, the Love Without Boundaries surgical staff performed more than 40 surgeries on children.

The children ranged in ages from 10 weeks to 8 years old. The majority of the children were younger than 3 years old.

This year will probably be Love Without Boundaries' last trip to Kaifeng for a while, Clinch said, because another component of the mission trip is to teach China's surgical team how to perform their surgeries themselves.

"We basically trained ourselves out of that program," she said.

The Midwest Surgery Center will continue participating in Love Without Boundaries, but next time it will probably be somewhere else in China.

Clinch and Tolan said participating in Love Without Boundaries is an extremely rewarding experience because they are able to change the lives of children.

"You've changed the life of these kids substantially, not only from a health standpoint but also by being able to complete their face helps them with how they perceive themselves in a society where saving face is a big deal," Clinch said. "Your face is such a big portion of how you see the world and how the world sees you, so it's nice for these kids to feel like that fit in more in society."

More information on Love Without Boundaries can be found online by visiting

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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