The word "vacation" has taken on a whole new meaning for a group of doctors and nurses.
A team of more than 30 medical practitioners took their personal vacation days and paid their own travel fare, for a seven-day mission to Vietnam to perform free surgeries for children in need.
, a plastic surgeon in West Orange and Jersey City, was one of several surgeons that provided much-needed relief for families and children who cannot afford specialized medical care.
"When you finish, they're so grateful and you feel so great about it. But you wish you could do more," Lalla, 44, said after returning from his trip.
The seven-day mission was organized by Healing the Children New Jersey, a nonprofit that provides medical care to needy and underprivileged children.
Lalla, of Westfield, said that though it was his first time in Vietnam, he's no stranger to these philanthropic vacations. Thailand, India and Kenya are just a handful of countries he's visited in recent years for similar projects.
"I think plastic surgery is conducive to that, you can do something for somebody in a short amount of time. And once you go, you get addicted," he said.
The group worked in a local hospital in the city of Hue, spending the first day screening patients.
Lalla said he helped children with cleft lips, burns, scars and duplicate thumbs, but couldn't help everyone that came to the hospital, "some things we couldn't do — something that would take hours and equipment that we didn't have and followup."
As word spread around the city about the visiting doctors, children lined up outside the hospital with their families day after day hoping they'd be able to seek the help they needed.
"We wanted to more but we did whatever we could," Lalla said.
The team also included neurologists and orthopedic specialists among other medical professionals.
More than 70 surgeries were performed within the week, 30 of which were plastic surgery.
All of the work was done pro bono and at no cost to the patients, who were poor and could not afford to pay for treatment.
The doctors even brought bags and luggages stuffed with medical equipment and supplies — most of which they used for the medical procedures, leaving the remainder with the local hospital.
But the trip did not come without its challenges. "It's a communist country, so in the beginning they were a little more hesitant to show us that they couldn't take care of all their patients. They wanted to show that they could handle themselves," Lalla said.
In a blog post on his website, Lalla writes about the stigma children with deformities face in Vietnam,
"It is very difficult for children with defects in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese people believe that the parents or grandparents are to blame for the deformities. It is viewed as a punishment for something they did wrong in their lives. Many local villagers believe Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam War, is also a cause of such an abnormality and the afflicted child is referred to as an Agent Orange baby. Agent Orange was designed to defoliate the jungle and thus deny cover to Vietcong guerrillas. It contained one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD. In time, the dioxin then spread its toxic reach to the food chain, which some say, led to a proliferation of birth deformities."
The group worked closely with the local doctors, though, and through the help of translators, taught them certain techniques and leaving behind any extra medical supplies.
Reflecting on his time abroad, Lalla said, "People there were very nice. People are hard working and it was nice to help them."