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Miracles on a Shoestring From Interplast Inc.

April 23, 1985|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

So many operations. So many doctors. Sometimes I didn't feel I wanted to live. But I said to myself if you want to be somebody you've got to get up and try. --Cesar Cano, a 17-year-old Colombian native who nowlives in Gilroy, Calif.

Cesar Cano was only 11 when the team of American surgeons first saw him. For almost a year, he had lain in a hospital in Medellin, Colombia, about 200 miles northwest of Bogota, where doctors could do little for him.

The boy had been horribly burned in a gasoline explosion in his tiny village, high in the mountainous region of Colombia. His face, neck and upper body were severely damaged, his hands deformed.

But Sue Price, a Peace Corps worker who knew his family, contacted Interplast Inc., a group of volunteer doctors based in Palo Alto, Calif., and asked for help for Cano. Surgeons from Interplast examined Cano and decided his injuries were so grave that he would have to be brought to the United States for extensive operations.

A Nonprofit Group

Interplast is a nonprofit organization of medical personnel, plastic surgeons, nurses, pediatricians and anesthesiologists, who travel to many developing nations to do reconstructive plastic surgery on children who have suffered burns, other severe injuries or who have birth defects. Sometimes, as in Cano's case, the youngsters must be brought to the United States for extensive surgeries.

"Cesar is pretty unusual for an Interplast patient. There are a couple of other exceptions, but most don't stay here so long," said Amy Laden, a social worker who started out as a volunteer with Interplast and is now a full-time staff member. "We have about 30 patients per year here, between 10 and 20 at a given time. But Cesar stayed because of the distance and cost and need for surgeries."

Laden has made about 15 trips abroad, spending long hours each time talking with and reassuring parents who must decide whether to send their youngsters to the United States for more difficult surgeries.

"I haven't had one family refuse yet," she said, sitting at Cano's side. "It is really tough for them to let them go, but they realize they have a better chance for medical help."

Once the youngsters are here, Laden lines them up with volunteer host families and assists them in adjusting to the culture shock most experience. Laden, who is fluent in Spanish, helped Cano with his early adjustment to life in California, and now converses with him in English.

"I feel committed to helping Cesar go on," she said. "He is a remarkable boy, very bright and enormously motivated."

Cano, 17, feels he has adjusted now to living in the Palo Alto area after six years and going to school between recuperation periods. "I am just as happy here now as I was in Colombia," he said.

This week, he is scheduled to have his 12th operation, and there still are more ahead.

"The only thing (in English) I knew when I came was 'good morning,' " Cano said during an interview at Stanford University Hospital. But Cano studied English and learned quickly. Now in the ninth grade, he is quite comfortable with his second language.

"The first few months here were really hard for me," said Cano. "The people were really nice, but I missed my family. My mother came. It was very difficult for her to leave."

Cesar and his mother, Ruth, lived with one of Interplast's 30 volunteer families, Marilyn and Elwood Mills of Gilroy, until Ruth Cano got a job "taking care of a lady who had a stroke." They went home once, in the summer of 1982, to visit the family, but Cesar had to return for more surgery.

Two months ago, Cano's father, younger brother and two sisters came to join them in Gilroy, where the family now has an apartment. An older brother already was living and working in the Palo Alto area. The elder Cano now has a job in a furniture factory.

So far, Cesar has had enough reconstructive surgery on his hands that he can hold a pencil or pen and draw and paint. Additional operations are planned to help improve his usage even more.

Cano was injured in his father's restaurant, where, he explained, gasoline or kerosene is used to cook. His father, too, suffered burns from a gasoline fire in 1979, but they were not as severe.

"I put my hands in front of my face, to cover my face from the fire," he explained. "The doctors said if I didn't have my hands over my face, I would be blind. When I got here, I couldn't raise my neck up. It was kind of painful, the recuperation and skin grafts. But I don't want to stay home and rest because I miss too much school."

Cesar plans to remain in the United States, and hopes eventually to attend art classes at the university. "My algebra is kind of shaky right now," he said, smiling. "But I am really more interested in art. I would like to be a graphic designer. I took one art course in school, drawing and painting and airbrushing. And I will take art again next year.

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