Benedict Edward Valdez: The smile surgeon of Mindanao

MANILA, Philippines – A simple smile can mean much for a child – it gives him a chance to gain a friend, to confidently stand up and recite in class, and even have the courage to say hi to his crush. 

But children who suffer from cleft lips and palates – birth defects that occur when a baby’s mouth or lip does not form properly in the womb – do not get the chance to do these simple things. (READ: ABCs of pregnancy and nutrition

And this is why Benedict Edward Valdez, a doctor from Davao City, has made it his life’s mission to give children with cleft lips and palates a chance to smile again. The missionary doctor is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Ramon Aboitiz Award for Exemplary Individual. 

Valdez looks at cleft surgeries as a second chance for young people who suffer from the birth defects. He explained that cleft patients often avoid going to school – or going out of the house altogether – out of fear of being bullied for their appearance.  

“It is pretty much important because we have that particular dignity. What is the primal and the first thing that we should see? It's ‘I should have a normal face so I can go to school.’ So education is secondary,” Valdez told Rappler. 

“Now if you are a mother and [you have] a kid like that, how would you feel? You feel [a] deeper, a more well-entrenched, unconceivable sadness for your kid. But he or she doesn't realize this,” he added. 

Valdez is the new president of the Maharlika Charity Foundation Incorporated, which has been providing free surgeries to disabled patients, burn victims, and other Filipinos suffering from congenital anomalies in Mindanao and Palawan since 1973. 

Before taking the helm of the foundation, Valdez spent the last 17 years as Maharlika’s missions director. Under his leadership, Maharlika was able to create 3 cleft referral centers in the Caraga Regional Hospital, East Visayas Regional and Medical Center, and the Medical Mission Group Hospital and Health Services Cooperative. 

Maharlika also has an existing partnership with international charity Smile Train, helping Valdez’s foundation to provide free corrective surgeries for children with cleft lips and palates across the region. Local donors and organizations also help finance Maharlika’s activities.

Passion at work

Valdez is a well-respected doctor in Mindanao, known for his love of charity and selfless service. He is a staunch advocate of effective pre-hospital care in the Philippines, explaining that proper medical care is not a mission for doctors alone.

“It is not the doctor who can save a life. It is the system that can save a life,” said Valdez.

He said that even if an excellent doctor works in a certain hospital, a patient who is not able to receive the necessary pre-hospital care will not be able to survive. 

“For instance, if there's a person who just had cardiac arrest and nobody knows how to do CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and nobody knows how to attach the defibrillator, [the person] would die. But if a particular patient had cardiac arrest and somebody started CPR as soon [possible], the patient will live,” said Valdez.

“So it's a collaboration…. I call this as horizontal management, meaning to say, everybody collaborates. So that is part of the inclusive leadership style of having a very good system and putting in place appropriate people into particular systems,” he added.

Apart from helping cleft patients, Valdez has used his expertise in trauma and critical care to help set up Davao’s 911 Emergency Medical System (EMS). He helped mentor the EMS team members to give on-site treatment to patients.

Valdez passed the medical board examinations in 1996 and later entered the general surgery training program in Davao Medical Center, now called the Southern Philippines Medical Center. He became the chief resident of the hospital’s department of surgery as well as chief executive assistant to the chief of hospital.

Valdez is also a diplomate in the Philippine Board of Surgery and a Philippine Society of General Surgeons fellow.

“I started the emergency medicine back in Davao, so it's barely 3 years ago, and I'm pretty much aggressive [in pursuing my] specialization. So all of these things, these are my passion,” he said.

When he accepted his award from the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Incorporated on August 31, Valdez made sure to lobby for the passage of the House bill institutionalizing a pre-hospital emergency medical care system in the country. 

Versions of the House measure remain pending with the committee on health since October 2017. 

“I am a person that cannot wait.... So my fervent request, especially for the Office of the President, is that they will be able to see where we are at and fast-track [it] so that [it] becomes law,” said Valdez. 

Obstacles for missionaries

Being a missionary doctor is not always easy, however. Valdez admits that there’s only a limited number of surgeons and anaesthesiologists who are willing to give their services for free.  

To join a foundation like Maharlika, for example, a doctor would have to give up his or her chance of earning a lot from having his or her own clinic or operating room. 

“The number of volunteers of surgeons and anaesthesiologists is really limited. You cannot just uproot them and make them do some stuff while they are not getting paid…. They’re leaving their possible incomes, especially their clinics and operating rooms. So that’s a major challenge,” said Valdez.

He said Maharlika volunteers also have to deal with geopolitics. 

According to Valdez, some residents they plan on helping outside Davao City sometimes become wary when they realize one of the volunteers is a supporter of a particular politician. 

So what does he tell the residents to convince them to allow Maharlika to do its missionary work?

“I always tell them that, ‘Sir, we are loyal to your constituents. And we are neutral and whoever invites us, we welcome [the invitation] because every person you refer, we do surgeries for free,’” said Valdez.

If they are given permission, Valdez says, Maharlika pushes through with their mission. Otherwise, they respect the wishes of the community.

Hope and charity

For now, Valdez hopes that Maharlika’s efforts would also inspire local surgeons to study and master corrective surgery for cleft patients.

He said volunteer surgeons like himself can only do so much for a certain community, saying they cannot possibly treat each and every person there.

“So we have to empower local people, local surgeons to screen and to work on the patients and the operations.... Not all surgeons do cleft. You need to study it, you need to practice it,” said Valdez.  

For all the obstacles thrown his way, what keeps Valdez going?

“The only thing that we envision [is that] if nobody will do it [and] we are capable of doing it, we feel that that is our responsibility, we have to do it,” said Valdez.

He said the fulfilment comes when the surgery is done. 

“You know, the fulfilment comes after the operation. You know these kids, they embrace you, they kiss you. And the mothers, they bless you, and then the fathers will cry,” said Valdez.

He hopes that his victory in the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Incorporation’s Triennial Awards this year will set an example for other Filipinos to do charity work for their countrymen.

“There is still hope for our country. My getting the award is just nothing, but this will set an example that there is still charity and hope for the Philippines,” he said. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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