Dick Kraus

by Dick Kraus
Staff Photographer

There wasn't a dry eye in the room at the Children's Hospital in Villahermossa in the southern province of Tobasco in Mexico. The mother held her infant child to her breast and sobbed. Her last hope of saving her child was dashed when the American doctors told her that there was nothing they could do to help. Her baby had been born with a cleft palate and cleft lip so bad that there was just a hole where the poor soul's mouth and nose should have been. The distraught mother, not more than a child, herself, had blamed herself for the child's deformity. She was an uneducated Indian from the mountains. She said, through an interpreter, that she had strayed outside of her dwelling when there was a full moon. With ignorance and superstition rife in the mountains and jungles of the region, she believed that the child was cursed. She had hoped that the American medical team that had come to Tobasco Province could cure her hapless infant. As much as these good people wanted to be able to save the child, they were forced to tell her that the baby was too young to be able to survive the drastic surgery required to repair such deformity

This poor infant couldn't be helped by surgery 
and would probably persih from an inability to 
take nourishment. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Tears roll down the cheeks of this distraught mother
after being informed that her infant couldn't survive 
the extensive amount of surgery required. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 
Tears welled up in the eyes of the surgeons, nurses and volunteers who had come to Mexico to try to help the poor and unfortunate children who were born with cleft lips and palates. While they did perform their miracles on 50 children in the 8 days of surgery, nothing could blunt the devastating effect of watching this heartbroken young woman leave with a child that couldn't survive for much longer. I photographed this tragic scene as it unfolded and it became harder and harder for me to see through the viewfinder through teary eyes.
I had been invited to participate in this medical mission through my friend and fellow contributor to The Digital Journalist, Fritz Nordengren. Fritz is a producer of several commercial websites and his latest venture, in partnership with Don Winslow, is a not for profit site for Operation Rainbow. Operation Rainbow is the non-profit organization based in Houston, TX, which organizes medical teams to travel to third world countries to help children with deformities like cleft lips and palates. The doctors pay their own expenses like travel and lodging and donate their services and bring their own instruments and even purchase the necessary drugs. Operation Rainbow seeks out grants to pay the expenses of nurses and other staff who can't afford the cost by themselves. Missions have worked in China, Russia, the Philippines, Bosnia, Mexico, Central and South America.

Dr. Tal Raine performs his surgery with 
the help of microscope attatchments to 
his glasses. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 
When Fritz informed me of this mission to Mexico, I jumped at the opportunity. My travel expenses would be paid, as well as my hotel and I would even get a stipend. And, best of all, it would be a great opportunity to be a photojournalist, once again. For those of you who have followed my frequent complaints in The Assignment Sheet, you know how fed up I am about being relegated to shoot "Head Shots and Real Estate" for my paper. Now I could really tell a story with my camera.

So. I cashed in a couple of weeks of time that was owed me by Newsday. Sue Ellen Ruggles, the capable Director of Operation Rainbow, mailed me my tickets and on Saturday, February 3rd, I caught a flight from NY to Houston, where I met Fritz, Sue Ellen and the medical team who were from the Chicago area. We enplaned for a flight to Mexico City where we had to go through Customs and Immigration and then caught a flight to Villahermossa where the mission would work from the Children's Hospital there. We arrived in the late afternoon and walked out into the hot, humid air of this tropical city. It felt good to leave the cold, snow and ice back north.

After retrieving our personal luggage, we had to supervise the offloading of the dozen or more cases containing the medical supplies. There were two busses from the hospital to pick us up. One for the supplies and one for us. As soon as I had my baggage, I ran outside to get an establishing shot as the team and the supplies came past the sign designating the terminal at the airport. Then I had to run to catch the bus. I had jammed my one camera into my camera bag but didn't take the time to secure it properly and it popped out as I was running. Well, the camera survived, fortunately, but the SB-28 flash gun snapped off at the hot shoe and was out of commission for the whole time. I would have tried to buy a cheap replacement, but after the first day of shooting by availible light, I felt comfortable enough to continue that way. I still would have liked to have had the flash for fill on a lot of the shots. But, the experience taught me the need for redundancy when traveling. Next time I will bring two cameras and two flash guns.

We were staying at a nice First Class Hotel, and as soon as we checked in everyone ran to their rooms and into a shower. Fritz and I shared a double room and I grabbed the shower first. Then we all met at the hotel restaurant for some drinks and a great dinner.

The team unpacks crates and sets up the OR.
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Surgeons and staff unpack surgical supplies.
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

The hospital bus picked us up at 7 AM the next day. As soon as we arrived at the hospital the team got busy setting up for the day's work and I busied myself taking photographs of the activity. The surgeons and nurses set up their equipment in the two operating rooms. The recovery room nurses made sure that there were enough beds and cribs in their venue. And the administrators and social workers set up interview and examination areas, because the first day would involve screening prospective patients and schedualing them for operations. I had some very capable help from one of the volunteers who came on the trip. Ed Horni was a young engineer from Sugarland, TX and he was a photo enthusiast who had a Nikon 990 digital camera, So, we put him to work making photos of the young patients being screened and examined. I was free to make photos of the medical team setting up, and then I wandered around finding wonderful shots of beautiful kids and their families.

Dr. Michael Goldwasser, Chief Surgeon
of the team, holds a prospective patient.
© Dick Kraus 2/01
Page Parkhill, from Urbana, IL, was another non-medical volunteer who had been on other missions. She solicits contributions of toys, games and stuffed animals which she carts on her missions at her own expense. Every child who goes through the medical procedures becomes the recipient of the benevolence of wonderful people like Page and her donors. On this day, Page filled the waiting rooms with games and toys and encouraged the frightened, waiting children to join in the fun. Page bounced balls with them, blew bubbles and read books to them and sat at the small tables and put together jigsaw puzzles. She did this for hours on end, every day and I was amazed at her stamina. And the children adored her and would follow her around like she was truly a Pied Piper without ill intent. The parents of the children certainly appreciated the way she kept the children calm and amused. They were having their own uncertanties and were only too happy to be relieved of the chore of keeping young children from being scared.

Page Parkhill, one of the volunteers, with some of many stuffed toys that she gathers and brings along on Operation Rainbow Missions
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Page Parkhill blows bubbles in the Waiting Room, to the delight of the young patients and their grateful parents.
© Dick Kraus 2/01
Fritz, the Webmaster, and I would discuss story possibilities at the start of each day. The first day was all about setting up and screening patients. Ed Horni and I would shoot and drop off our flash cards at Fritz's computer station. We would load an empty disc into our cameras and go back to shooting while Fritz downloaded our cards onto his computer desktop. Then he would preview our shots and pick several to go with the stories he was writing. He would then run the shots through Photoshop, make corrections and crops. He would add captions and give Ed and I credit lines. He would insert our shots into the text and upload everything to the server and the website. Within minutes of shooting, our work would be availible for people to see. He updated the site as new stories and photos developed. I certainly had more of my photos published on the web site than I did on any story I ever worked on for my paper. And that is a very heady feeling.


Mothers fill out the necessary paper work before their children
are screened as possible candidates for surgery. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Dr. Tal Raine looks into the mouth of a prospective candidate
for surgery during the screening procedure. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

The second day, operations were put off until the afternoon, because we were invited to breakfast with the Governor of Tobasco Province at his palace. And, it was truly a palace. Breakfast was a sumptuous repast in a tented pavillion between the two buildings that make up the palace. Peacocks shrilled and strutted on the grounds and a Mexican band played lovely Mexican and Spanish music while we dined. There were speeches in English and Spanish. The Governor and his wife presented each of us with a momento of our stay and we each got a photo of this.

Breakfast at the Governor's Palace was a sumptuous affair.
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Sue Ellen Ruggles, Director of Operation Rainbow, receives a gift and a handshake from the Governor and his wife.
© Dick Kraus 2/01
Then it was time to get down to business and the medical staff donned their scrubs and masks and set to work. Ed and I made pictures of the drama as scared and nervous mothers handed their babies to strangers. There was a good photo in every case. Each of the two operating rooms began repairing the horrible deformaties in each of these children and babies.
A young patient gets a parting kiss from her mother before 
  being taken to the OR for surgery by Nurse Patty Metzler. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

A mother watches as her daughter is 
carried to the OR 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Nurse Sheila (aka Shayla) Paul cradles 
            a young patient as she carries her to the            OR for the surgery that will correct her 
cleft lip. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Dr. Heather Nath, Chief Anesthesiologist 
begins the procedure. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 
The anesthesiologists would talk in comforting tones as they set about putting the children to sleep. The kids had no comprehension of the English words, but they did understand the soothing tones and most of them calmed down as the anesthesia began to work. The surgeons gave me complete access and explained what they were doing as they went along. As long as I was wearing scrubs, paper slippers over my shoes, a surgical cap and mask, I could get right up to the table and they would give me room to shoot whatever I needed. I had covered many operating room stories in my career and the doctors and nurses were happy to know that I didn't get queasy at the sight of blood

Dr. Sandy Ettema stands ready to assist Dr. Will Noyes, the skilled micro- surgeon working with the aid of a binocular microscope, as he opens the ear passage of a patient that was closed because of the cleft pallate. At right is  anesthesiologist Marvin Brombaugh
© Dick Kraus 2/01

In order to illustrate what cleft palatte is, a surgeon 
places an instrument through a nostril and the tip 
of the probe can be seen in the patient's mouth. 
This shows that the roof of the mouth hasn't formed
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Another advantage of the child being anesthetised
is that he or she doesn't get frightened by the alien
looking surgeon bending over the table. Dr. Tal 
Raine uses magnifiers on his glasses to enlarge the
field on which he is working.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Some final stitches are placed and after some time for healing, this girl will be able to lead a normal life with little evidence of a cleft lip.
Dick Kraus 2/01
I noticed that the operating room staffs were strictly business on the first couple of days. But, after the second day, the teams had become familiar with one another and while the operations proceeded with professionalism, there began an increasing amount of jocularity in the room. Each room had a cd player and a broad selection of tunes. Room Number Two played the best music and the team working at the table seemed to sway in cadence to whatever tune was playing. Now, how cool is that? It certainly didn't interfere with the surgery and it went a long way to dispell the tension.

In between surgeries, the OR nurses and volunteers would grab a 
break wherever they could. Even atop the boxes in the Supply Room.
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

Lisa Henne grabs some zzzzz's in a 
 corner of the recovery room until the 
           next patient comes out of OR. 
                   © Dick Kraus 2/01 

Each day, the bus would pick us up at the hotel at 7 AM. Operations would begin at 8. Some surgeries went fast. Most didn't. As soon as the operation was completed and the last stitch was in place, the surgeons would check for bleeding and when they were certain that the operation was successful, the anesthesiologist would start reviving the child. In the meantime, the doctors might run down to the lounge that had been set up for us at the end of the hall. There, the wonderful people at the hospital would have breakfast, coffee, buns, and soft drinks on ice. Later there would be lunch and some of the best food that I have ever eaten was prepared for us by the hospital kitchen. I told one of the Mexican staff that if this was what the patients ate, I would make sure that my next hospitalization would be here. Their barbecued chicken was to die for. There were chairs and couches and we were able to relax in comfort for a few minutes between surgery. 

Chief Anesthesiologist, Dr. Heather Natch, carries an
unconcious child from surgery after her operation.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Recovery Room Nurse Sheila Paul hovers over a boy as he begins to come out of the anesthesia.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

A concerned mother sits by her son's bed in the 
Recovery Room. He has a device inserted into his 
nostril to facilitate breathing.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

When the child started to come around, nurses would bring the child into the recovery room. The anesthesiologist would hover over the child until it was certain that the child was awake. Sheila Paul was the nurse in charge of recovery. Because her name was misspelled on her name tag, she became Shayla and she liked the sound of that, so for the duration of the mission, she was Shayla. And Shayla became synonymous with love and compassion. This lovely young woman would hold her young charges and croon to them as they awoke to pain and discomfort and confusion. The surgeon would come by to make one last examination before re-entering his operating room to begin the next surgery. At this point, the mother of the recovering child would be dressed in sterile scrubs and reunited with her baby. They would stay the rest of the day, sitting in a chair alongside the bed or crib. They would fall asleep in the chair when their child slept. Soon, they would be able to hold their baby in their arms. 

As the day wanes, a mother dozes beside her sleeping child in the Recovery Room.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

A father plays with his son in the
Recovery Room.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

The weary team leaves the hospital for their hotel, passing families who will spend the night in front of the hospital on flattened cardboard cartons in order to be near their children.
Dick Kraus 2/01
The last operation of the day would end between 6 and 7 PM. Everyone stayed for another couple of hours until the last patients were confirmed to be out of danger and that there were no complications. The children would be fed and the families would have to leave them. Some went home if they lived nearby or had cars. Those that didn't would spread flattened cardboard cartons in the front of the hospital and would sleep on these makeshift pallets until they were allowed back into the hospital to be with their children the next morning. Those children who just had cleft lip repairs usually got to go home the next day. Those with more extensive cleft palate repairs, usually spent two days in recovery.

By the time that the team got back to the hotel, we were all pretty played out. Everyone would dash to their room and a hot shower. Most would meet at the bar in the lobby for some Mexican beer or maybe a tequilla (or a scotch/rocks, in my case.) Then we would troop into the hotel dining room for a wonderful dinner. Some of the crew would opt for dinner at one of the many restaurants near the hotel. I was appalled when a few of them returned and told us that they had eaten tacos at the local Taco Bell. "Jeez!" I said, "You travel 2,000 miles into the depths of Mexico only to eat at an American Taco Bell?" Oh, well. There's no accounting for taste.

As the week wound down, we found ourselves invited to various functions. The Mayor of our host city of Villahermosa threw a party at our hotel, in our honor. It was held, one evening, outdoors at the hotel pool. The food was excellent, the drinks were plentiful and the speeches were short. After the last day of surgery, on Friday, the wonderful woman who administers Operation Rainbow, Sue Ellen Ruggels from Houston, TX, threw a party to end all parties. We took over a large room behind the hotel dining room. Sue Ellen had arrainged for trays of Mexican hors d'ouvres. Bottles of tequilla and beer, supplied by the doctors appeared and never seemed to run out. Our hard working Webmaster, Fritz Nordengren, had put together a video. When he could, he would shoot some video and sound, as the week wore on. He didn't have the time to make the streaming video for the web site, as he had hoped. But he did put together a little spoof that had us rolling on the floor. One of the team was speech therapist David Kuehn who was in on the gag. Fritz taped him as he explained his technique.

"The first sound I have to teach them," David explained, is 'AHH'. After that is the sound 'WHEH'." He rounded his mouth and puffed up his cheeks and out came "WHEH." He repeated it several times. "Next is the sound 'MAH'. The
last sound is 'WAY". That gives them the proper exercise to form words. Listen as I say these sounds together."

Still straight faced, David looked right into the camera and starting slowly he spoke the sounds together. "AHH WHEH MAH WAY." Then faster. "AHHWHEHMAHWAY."

At that point, the scene shifted to some of the doctors and nurses, who in a moment of extreme silliness between operations, had allowed Fritz to tape them in an impromptu conga line dance to the strains of a song on one of their cd's. It started out, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight, Ahh wheh mah way, ahh wheh mah way." 

David Kuehn lectures at a symposium for 
the local doctors. He is the speech therapist 
on the team. 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

These people work hard and they party hard. Surgeon Tal Raine became the impromptu MC and prepared tequilla shooters in shot glasses mixed with the potent liquor and a bit of Sprite. He would select a victim and everyone would count "Unos, dos, tres" as he covered the top of the glass with one hand and banged the glass on the table with the other with each count which mixed the soda and tequilla. Then the victim was required to guzzle the drink in one swallow, which we all did, many times that night to the cheers of an increasingly drunken group of revelers. In between shots we regaled the group with some of the funniest (albeit filthiest) jokes that I have ever heard. I managed to remember a couple of them and I told them back at the press room at Supreme Court in Mineola, last week and it broke them up, so I guess in spite of our lack of sobriety, they were really funny jokes. I love my job.

Sue Ellen Ruggles cuts the cake in
celebration of the final day of a 
successful Mission.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

A homeward bound patients licks
some icing from her fingers.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Nurse Patty Metzler enjoys a grateful hug from one of her charges on the last day.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Saturday was final rounds. All of the patients who had operations that week, returned to the hospital for a final check-up and to say goodbye to this wonderful group of people. There was a huge cake and soda and balloons set up in the hosptal lobby. The kids looked for their surgeon and nurses and gave them big hugs. Both sides were affected by this open display of gratitude and emotion and there were tears in everyone's eye. The volunteers and the toy giver, Page Parkhill, and the social workers and the speech therapist had arms draped around their necks and cake-sticky mouths pressed against their cheeks. Many remembered that I had photographed them during their ordeal, and now, in Spanish, with many hand gestures, they wanted me to make more photos, now that were looking so much better. And, I did.
A happy youngster enjoys some yogurt
before going home.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Ready to go home.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

Some final hugs and a group photo before boarding the last bus back to the hotel.
© Dick Kraus 2/01

A farewell wave from a happy camper 
© Dick Kraus 2/01 

At last, I could be a for-real photojournalist. I was telling stories from beginning to end. Yes, there were still a lot of head shots being made. But, these were head shots with a purpose. They were appealing photos that showed real people and they became part of that story. I loved it. I really loved what I was doing. And, I will do it again.

I had a couple of days off, when I returned home. When I got back to work, on Thursday, I spent the day making head shots for two Business Page stories and one shot of some houses in a community for a Real Estate story. Head shots and real estate. But, for once, I had a marvelous opportunity to be a photojournalist.


Dick Kraus