Sweat trickled down his face as Mark Paxton ’76 threaded the surgical needle through the roof of his patient’s open mouth. In 95-degree heat and no air conditioning, the doctors in the Guatemalan operating room used white cloths to wipe away the moisture.

The oral surgeon put down his tools and stepped back. After 23 years of performing cleft lip and palate surgeries on medical mission trips to Zacapa, Guatemala, he has grown used to the intense and muggy conditions.

Surgery with Mark Paxton
Paxton and fellow volunteers perform palate surgery in Guatemala. (Courtesy Mark Paxton)

His 10-day trip with a group of about 100 Washington State University students and volunteers last March focused on construction, providing general medical and dental clinics, and cleft surgeries.

“It’s not that cleft lip and cleft palate happen more frequently [in Guatemala] than in the United States, it just doesn’t get fixed,” says Paxton. “The need is very acute in Central America from managing not just cleft lip and cleft palate; they need basic medical care, basic dental care.”

Paxton started traveling on charitable missions as a WSU student. After completing his doctorate at the University of Washington in 1980, he joined the U.S. Air Force for his residency in oral surgery.

Operating on cases ranging from gunshot wounds to cleft palate repairs in the military, Paxton realized the impact his work could have on a person. “It changes how they look, how they’re perceived, how they act, how their social life will be, and their potential going forward in the rest of their life,” he says.

Paxton set up his practice in Spokane, but he wanted to continue traveling and using his medical skills where they were needed in Latin America. He joined the nonprofit mission organization Hearts in Motion (H.I.M.) and now makes regular trips to Guatemala. He performs about 60 major surgeries per trip in local hospitals.

Karen Sheeringa-Parra, founder and executive director of H.I.M., coordinates about two dozen missions a year with teams of dentists, surgeons, volunteers, and students. She says many come in expecting to share their education and leave with a greater perspective about their own lives.

“I’m really convinced that people want to help to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to do it, don’t know how to start,” she says. “We give them this venue to learn about another lifestyle.”

The 40-some WSU students who traveled with Paxton in March saw the number of lives the doctors could change in a week. Joel Alvarez, a WSU chemistry student, grew up in a family that did not have the resources to prioritize health care. With the potential of diabetes and related health issues for his relatives, he decided to learn about medicine to care for them and others with limited resources.

Seeing the clinics and surgeries in Guatemala reinforced his interest in working with underserved communities. “I think it is worth it to come and say, ‘Hey, we are here for you,’” he says. “Anything I attempt to do … or help someone else do, it’s still going to be worth it.”

Alvarez and his classmates in pharmacy, dentistry, speech and hearing, and surgery assisted the volunteer doctors and worked directly with the Guatemalans.

Spokane dentist Steve Woodard ’83 and his son Chris have traveled to Guatemala with the WSU team for the last four years. The younger Woodward, a WSU student who hopes to someday have his own dentistry practice, was eager to watch his father and Paxton at work. “You get to do a lot of observation that you wouldn’t get in the states,” says Chris Woodard. “You get good exposure and practice.”

Paxton has helped lead several volunteer groups on H.I.M. missions, and says he values the organization that the nonprofit provides.

Paxton has not experienced a surgery-related death during his 23 years in the country. However, in a country with more limited medical resources, the potential exists. In March, his operating team had to save the life of a 28-year-old patient who started bleeding out after a procedure.

“There is no blood bank there,” Paxton said. “That’s Guatemala. That’s the challenge of third-world surgery.”

The team has also had to turn away some patients due to a lack of equipment. In the more serious cases, they try to raise money and work with hospitals back home like Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. Paxton is currently campaigning to raise at least $80,000 to help Victoria, a 14-year-old Guatemalan girl who was born with severe cleft fractures in her skull. Her dysfunctional left eye is located on her left temple, and her nose is skewed left.

Paxton wants to collaborate with three other Spokane surgeons to change Victoria’s face and give her the opportunity for a more normal life back in Guatemala. The doctors will donate their time and expertise, and donations will pay for the operating room, support staff, and Victoria’s transportation and recovery.