Doctors bring their skills to Ghana

Doctors bring their skills to Ghana

Harcsztark examines the teeth of Ghanaian children.

Most of the time, dentist Harry Harcsztark practices at the Smile Center in Kearney. But from March 12 to March 22 – participating in a mission that was “half medical, half humanitarian – he worked with adults and children in Ghana, many of whom had never seen a dentist.

The Teaneck resident was recruited by oral surgeon Mendel Markowitz, medical director of the New Jersey-based International Humanitarian Aid Foundation, which organized the trip. Markowitz, who had participated in two previous trips to the African nation, explained that volunteers work in conjunction with Ghanaian hospitals, which match the IHAF surgical specialists to patients with no access to medical care.

According to its Website (, among other efforts IHAF projects have included “providing corrective heart surgery for children born with congenital heart defects through the Gift of Life program; designing and installing an ‘off grid’ system of water, electric, and sanitation services for an orphanage in Haiti; [and] creating a medical mission to help poor children receive corrective surgeries for cleft lip and palate, dangerous growths, congenital cataracts, and dangerous hernias.”

The privately funded outreach effort includes 10 doctors, 10 nurses, and some 20 volunteers who do whatever else is needed – from garnering supplies to booking flights to fund-raising. Most live in New Jersey.

Markowitz, a Teaneck resident with a practice in Clifton, noted that the major medical component of the recent trip to Ghana centered on the treatment of large oral tumors. In all, he said, IHAF doctors treated about 75 patients with this condition, working in conjunction with the 37 Military Hospital in Accra.

Harcsztark called Markowitz the “hero” of the mission for performing a surgical procedure subsequently reported in the Ghanaian Times.

Markowitz and his patient after surgery

According to Markowitz, he operated on a woman who had suffered for 18 years from a tumor under her chin that was beginning to “push her tongue into her throat.”

The oral surgeon explained that it was only by chance that he learned of the woman’s plight. On arriving in Ghana, he said, he saw an appeal on page 3 of the March 13 Ghanaian Times, seeking help for her.

“I contacted the paper and they managed to reach her and had her brought to the hospital. I was able to treat it there,” he said. The paper later ran an article about the successful surgery.

Markowitz noted that “you wouldn’t find that size tumor here.” Left untreated, “it had a chance to grow to 4 pounds.” The patient, he said, “is just thrilled” with the results of the surgery.

The IHAF delegation brought needed supplies with them – including, said Markowitz, medical equipment donated by the Stryker Corp., an international leader in the field of medical technology. The humanitarian arm of the mission brought and distributed 140,000 meals, which had been sent ahead by ship.

Markowitz said he got hooked on volunteer work after his first mission, during which he treated cleft lips and palates.

“It’s a life-changing operation,” he said. While there’s no financial reward, “you get addicted to this kind of work.”

“It’s not only fulfilling for myself,” he said, “but for others that I speak with, including my family. It rubs off on them. They understand the importance of giving.”

Markowitz said that when people become aware of the group, they want to help, even if they have no special skills.

“People with no training call and offer to help,” he said. “They just need to hear about it,” he added, explaining that when a system is in place to offer humanitarian assistance, it offers an opportunity to those “with the will to give.”

The people treated by IHAF doctors have been extremely grateful, said Markowitz. On one trip, he brought along a resident from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson. One patient was so thrilled with her surgery that “she offered [the resident] her daughter.”

During the most recent Ghana mission, IHAF teams visited several different locations – from the Buduburam Refugee Camp to a village in the jungle. According to Harcsztark, the group consisted of 37 members, “including 10 doctors and the same number of nurses.” While some performed medical procedures, others conducted humanitarian work, distributing food, clothes, and toys.

Harcsztark, who said he spent most of his time in Accra, “set up shop and did dental extractions” at the refugee camp, which, he said, “houses Liberians who ran away from the war.”

He also did dental work at the Osu Children’s Home, which serves 200 orphans.

“They don’t get many dentists there,” he said, pointing out that while his group had brought candy and sweets for the youngsters, they packed them away when they saw how good the children’s front teeth were. Back teeth, however, were a different story since – using toothbrushes made of sticks – the children have difficulty reaching those teeth.

Harcsztark said that while his dental exams began slowly, once he and a fellow dentist figured out how to transcend the language barrier to “define pain,” the speed of the procedures increased and they were able to see many more patients.

“We also trained two local girls to teach others how to brush their back teeth,” he said, adding that the girls were given scrubs as well as toothbrushes and toothpaste.

He also spent a day “in a village in the jungle, working with people who had never seen a dentist.” In addition to treating teeth, the IHAF doctors took care of children’s skin conditions, such as insect bites that had festered, and gave the local healer antibiotics, swabs, and other supplies. Harcsztark said he didn’t know whether the healer would use them once the IHAF team left, since she usually treats patients with herbs.

“It puts life in perspective,” said Harcsztark of the trip. “It’s the luck of the draw to be born here or there,” he added. “The contrast is awesome.”

For further information about IAHF, e-mail the Rev. Andrew Topp, its executive director, at or call (201) 410-0155.

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