It’s what any physician wants to see on their patients’ face, a beaming smile. Boulder-based Dr. Catherine Weng, who is a volunteer with Help Us Give Smiles Foundation, shares her experience with their mission.

Ten fingers, ten toes, one strong wail. It’s how we imagine—we hope, rather—all children come into the world. But what happens when their first appearance is made with a cleft lip or palate, or congenital deformities classified as microtia? That’s where Dr. Catherine Weng, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Peak Ear, Nose and Throat Center in Broomfield, and the support of Help Us Give Smiles (HUGS) Foundation come in.

Now in her third year volunteering, Dr. Weng was introduced to the HUGS Foundation during her fellowship training, where Dr. Quatela, founder of the organization, was her mentor.

Since 2003, HUGS has been dedicated to liberating children from their congenital deformities and allowing them to develop into confident individuals. The organization has sent medical volunteers, such as Dr. Weng, on 26 missions throughout Guatemala, Vietnam, and Ecuador to perform over a thousand surgical procedures, free of cost, on children born with these conditions.

Within a week, a group of six to ten surgeons can complete up to 50-60 life-changing surgeries.

Put this into perspective: in the United States, surgery for Microtia can cost around $40,000 per child. For the same amount, HUGS can help nearly sixty children in Ecuador.

According to HUGS, families are often broken apart when a child is born with a physical deformity. In some countries, the family feels as though a curse has been placed upon the child.

Dr. Weng recalls one Vietnamese boy named Ky, who had long hair on one side because he was trying to cover his small ear.

“He spoke perfect English and was about seven or eight years old,” she reminisced. “He told us, I was born without a normal ear just like your patients and I want you to fix my ear so I can look like a normal boy.”

For children like him, the work she contributes is an opportunity to erase that shame.

“It’s very rewarding,” says Dr. Weng. “The kids are resilient—they go through so much.” Ky is one such example. “He does all of these English competitions—that’s his thing—and he updates us on the awards he won,” she says with a smile. “That little boy is the one that stuck with me most.”

In 2018, HUGS will again have three missions, and Dr. Weng hopes to participate on one of them.

“I continue to volunteer because I find it so rewarding to be able to give back to kids in communities around the world and to make a difference in these children’s lives,” Dr. Weng says. “I return to the same locations to see the results of our previous year’s surgery, and I return for the wonderful opportunity and incredible fun I have working with some of the most talented surgeons I’ve met.”  

Donations go directly toward implementing these missions and providing critically needed medical supplies. For more information, visit HelpUsGiveSmiles.org.