DOVER — Of the thousands of operations Dr. Rafael Zaragoza experienced in 25 years of missions to the Philippines, one that readily stands out involved a little girl in the poverty-stricken city of Vigan on the South China Sea.
She had a cleft lip.
“Her mother told me that the kid was not going to go back to school because she was being teased by her classmates.” he said. “I talked to her daughter and I said, ‘If I repair your lip, will you go back to school?’
“She said, ‘Yes, Doctor.’”
After surgery, Dr. Zaragoza handed her a mirror.
“She said, ‘Doctor, I am going back to school tomorrow.’”
Dr. Zaragoza, a urologist, has been practicing medicine in Delaware for decades. He learned some facial surgeries from a plastic surgeon that he observed on previous mission.
“That was very touching,” he said.
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This past week, Dr. Zaragoza dropped off a letter to the Delaware State News to let the community know that 2014 was the last medical mission of the all-volunteer “Operation We Care” surgical team.
“Sadly, 2014 was the last year for our group to depart,” he said in the letter. “Beginning in 1989, I originally participated in annual missions with the Society of Philippine Surgeons in America, rendering free medical and surgical care to the needy people in different parts of the Philippines.”
Dr. Zaragoza was a founding member of the society in 1970. It was then that the organization planned to make annual missions.
In 1995, “Operation We Care” was initiated to fill a need for another mission. It was put together by the Dover and Gallipolis, Ohio, Rotary Clubs.
Drawing on the help of Dover-area doctors and nurses and others from around the country and world, Dr. Zaragoza led missions from the northern province of Ilocos, Norte, to the southern province of Davao.
On each trip, Dr. Zaragoza said the team would perform 150 major and 90 minor surgeries over a week’s time.
Information that doctors would be coming would be distributed ahead of their visits so those in need could sign up.
Often, the locals would want help with thyroid goiters, endemic in the Philippines.
Dr. Zaragoza said the goiters, when hyperactive, cause weight loss and affect the heart and the endocrine system.
He said fellow Dover doctor John Glenn would often perform more goiter surgeries in a week in the Philippines than he would here in a year.
Another Dover doctor, T. Noble Jarrell, once gave a patient money, in a gesture of faith, to pay for his trip to the next town where a surgery could be performed. The thyroid surgery required rest in advance and couldn’t be performed right away. His patient showed up.
“It’s giving back,” he said. “I think everybody’s gratified with what we’ve been doing. It’s the feeling that you’ve done something for your fellow human being and it gives you satisfaction. You’re proud and happy that you’ve accomplished something.”
It was usually about this time of year that the Operation We Care group left for the Philippines.
Dr. Zaragoza said there were several factors that led the organization to discontinue the trips.
One of the reasons, he said, is increasing restrictions by the Philippine government in issuing temporary medical licenses. For American doctors, it cost more than $100 to receive the temporary license.
Another is the cost of travel. An economy class flight, for a trip that takes more than 20 hours, costs more than $2,000, he said. That’s up from the $700-$800 trips they were taking in the early years of the missions.
“Of course, we’re getting older, too,” he said. “Some people are just tired of going every year.”
Dr. Zaragoza is now 85. He still works two mornings a week in a colleague’s office in Lewes.
Other missions, organized by the Society of Philippine Surgeons in America, will continue.
But, for Dr. Zaragoza, it’s the end of an era of giving.
“It’s sad, really, to see the end of it,” he said.
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For Dr. Zaragoza, the mission trips were a family affair.
His wife of 54 years, Claire, is an operating room nurse who made the first three mission trips.
His son, Dr. Michael Zaragoza, and his daughter, Sandy, a dentist, have volunteered. Grandsons Brian and Justin, both now in college, have been along.
Dr. Zaragoza grew up in the province of Pangasinan, about 150 miles north of Manila.
A bout with kidney stones as a child and teenager and advice from a doctor in Manila led him to choose his career path and further his education in the United States. He opened Dover’s first urology practice.
“My husband is a very giving person,” Mrs. Garagoza said. “We get as much from it as we give.
“The people that we serve are so poor. They’re just so happy to have you there. I’m sure they’re going to miss him.”
In April, there will be a Operation We Care reunion at Wild Quail where Dr. Zaragoza’s leadership will be celebrated.
In his letter to the newspaper, he concluded it with some words of thanks.
“We, the members of Operation We Care, are grateful that we were able to help those in need when we had the chance,” he wrote. “It was a very rewarding experience to help improve the lives of the needy and in some cases save lives. The recipients of our care were always very appreciative of the services we provided.
“We are thankful to the Dover Rotary Club for sponsoring Operation We Care and making it the international project of the Dover Rotary Club, initiating fundraising golft tournaments to defray expenses in procurement and shipment of medical-surgical supplies.
“Many thanks also go to Wayne Stultz, business manager of Operation We Care, in arranging transportation from Dover to Philadelphia or Dulles airports, taking supplies from Dover to Ohio for shipment to the Philippines, making the daily schedule in the operating rooms and preparing outcome reports to the Rotary International.
“On behalf of the beneficiaries of Operation We Care, I would like to thank each and every one who participated in this humanitarian endeavor having touched the lives, improving their health and probably saving the lives of others.”