More than Surgery
When Benjamin Rodriguez (BS ’75) arrived in Mexico to perform his first reconstructive surgery mission, his life changed forever. “You could say I became addicted,” he says. As his van pulled into a village, they were greeted by a 16-year-old whose clubfoot had been repaired by a colleague in a prior mission. He was excited to greet them and appeared to behave normally, despite his previous condition. Rodriguez admits that he didn’t think much of it at first, “. . . until the next day there was another kid with a clubfoot. He never made eye contact, wouldn’t speak, and was basically disconnected from society.” That’s when Rodriguez realized that the confidence of the young boy he had met the day before stemmed from life-changing surgery, something he could now offer to others. “It’s a rush you can’t get in any other way,” Rodriguez relates, “A similar sensation that I experienced on my mission when I could change people’s lives in a dramatic way. When you get to participate in something like that, you want that feeling again and again.”
Rodriguez now spends three or four months out of the year participating in charity surgical missions, but plastic surgery wasn’t always his goal. In fact, as a 19-year-old student at BYU, he had trouble choosing what to study. “I went to school for a few semesters before I dropped out to build swimming pools,” Rodriguez says. In an act of rebellion against what “everybody wanted [him] to do,” he left BYU behind and didn’t look back. Months later, he ran into an old roommate on the ski slopes who got him thinking about serving a mission. “I wasn’t sure at that time if God existed, so I thought to myself, ‘If God exists then I’m convinced this is the right church. If I go on a mission and find out He doesn’t exist, then at least I’ll have an adventure.’” Rodriguez admits that this wasn’t the ideal mindset for a potential missionary, but it got him out of a rut and into the Chile Concepción mission field where he learned to leave the world behind and focus on service—a lesson he has not since forgotten.
After his mission, Rodriguez returned to BYU with a newfound career trajectory. “While I was in Chile, I realized that the people who seemed to thrive were professionals. I wanted stability and security, so I pursued medicine.” He struggled at first to find a specialty, fearing he would grow bored of operating on just one part of the body. “What drew me to plastic surgery was all the different operations they could perform top to bottom. Plus, they had the best jokes and the most fun in the OR,” Rodriguez laughs. At first, he wanted to practice reconstructive surgery only, but his career later evolved to include aesthetic work. In time, however, he realized that he found the most satisfaction in traveling abroad to perform charity missions.
According to Rodriguez, the best part of the work is seeing the patients in the years following their surgeries. He recalls a trip to Ghana that left a lasting impression on him: “It was one of my duties to sit down with the patients who didn’t qualify for operations and explain why. I sat down with an 18-year-old mother and her five-year-old child who had a cleft palate but didn’t qualify this round.” As Rodriguez explained that the child was slightly underweight and below the ideal age for surgery, tears rolled down the mother’s face. Wanting to capture this display of pure human emotion, Rodriguez took a picture of the woman and her child, knowing that he never wanted to forget this moment. The young mother told Rodriguez that she had no parents and was living with her aunts when she got pregnant. When the baby was born with the deformed lip, her aunts kicked her out for fear the child was bewitched. “At that point, I knew that I had to help this child and his mother,” recalls Rodriguez. The child was placed at the bottom of the list, but when one of the surgeons passed away mid-week, the list was scrapped and rearranged, leaving young mother and baby with no hope for reconstruction. Rodriguez says, “But there was a miracle. My daughter had posted the photo of this mother to her social media after I emailed it to her. One of my patients reached out to me saying, ‘How can I help this mother?’” He sent money to Rodriguez, who worked with a medical team to schedule a surgery for the baby at the hospital in Accra. In addition to reconstructive surgery, the money served to rent a place for the two of them to live and bought some kitchen utensils for the mother to sell.
When Rodriguez returned to Ghana six months later, the mother was waiting at the clinic to thank him. “She was bubbling with enthusiasm, a completely different person than she was before. It amazed me that the . . . generosity of a patient combined with many hands working together saved two lives—the child’s and the mom’s.”
For Rodriguez, satisfaction doesn’t come from the travel or even performing challenging procedures. He strongly believes that being a tourist cannot bring the same joy as working for and contributing to a group of people who need help. He says, “People are trusting me with their most precious assets—their kids. It’s a very intimate involvement with them. You can see their hope and desperation and love for the people they hand over to you.” Rodriguez has learned that, in order to really understand others, one must “live with them, eat their food, see their habits, observe how they live, and appreciate who they are.”