New York, NY — Although Dr. Raul Caceres, a plastic surgeon and director of Smile Train’s newest partner, the Tiwanaku Project in Bolivia, has a surgical practice in New York City’s luxurious Upper East Side, he still devotes much of his time and talent to his hometown.
Born in Oruro, Bolivia, Dr. Caceres knows much about the hardships members of the community, located in the Bolivian Altiplano, 12,000 feet above sea level, encounter each day. The region is home to both magnificent scenery and some of Bolivia’s poorest citizens.
“Since I was born there I know what the conditions of the people are,” Dr. Caceres said. “They have one room that is the living room, dining room, everything, and the bathrooms, of course, are on the outside.” Residents also do not have electricity, so candles and bonfires must be used for light and warmth.
As Dr. Caceres’ career started blossoming during his work at top institutions like John Hopkins in Baltimore, among many others, he started thinking of ways he could give back to Oruro. It was not until a church trip to his hometown six years ago that he knew in which way he would do so.
During the trip the group visited the hospital in Oruro which was over a hundred years old and dilapidated. One participant noticed nurses washing their latex gloves to be used for the next day. “He just couldn’t believe it. He thought this is like going back in time, like a hundred years.” That same individual challenged Dr. Caceres to use his expertise as a plastic surgeon to help the hospital.
From the beginning Dr. Caceres had the full support of his church and six years later his vision, the Tiwanaku Project was complete. During that time a new hospital was built in the middle of the complex where the old one stood and is similar to any hospital found in the United States. “It looks like it is a castle in the middle of this one hundred year-old spread out hospital with some rooms falling down,” boasts Dr. Caceres. In Dr. Caceres’ “castle” the second floor is dedicated to clefts. (The first floor houses the Tiwanaku Project’s burn center.)
Another similarity between the Tiwanaku Project and the care in the U.S. is that each cleft patient is provided with continuous, comprehensive care all year round. “We have this opportunity that we have the infrastructure and we’ll have doctors train there in this kind of work [cleft care] so care will be given in a continuous kind of way.” Dr. Caceres also adds that many other specialists important for cleft care, including ENT doctors, audiologists, and dieticians, will also be available to patients.
Dr. Caceres has spared no detail to ensure that patients and their families are provided with the best care. The Tiwanaku Project now provides parents traveling great distances to the hospital, who previously slept on the floor and ate the leftovers of their children, a bed to sleep on and a dining room to eat provided meals.
“It is a unique place,” a prideful Dr. Caceres says with a smile.
Smile Train is also proud to have the Tiwanaku Project and Dr. Caceres on board to help Bolivian cleft patients in need. Below is a message from Dr. Caceres to the Smile Train donors.