By Stacey Makely
When Rutgers Phi Shahid R. Aziz set off on a medical mission in 2006 to perform cleft lip and palate surgery to those in need, Bangladesh seemed the natural choice: His father was Bengali and, though Dr. Aziz had always longed to visit the country and his many relatives there, he had never been.
His father, a doctor dedicated to medical research in the U.S., died when he was 16. A few days before his death, he told his son: “Make sure you make a difference in this world, and never forget where you came from.”
So in 2006, Dr. Aziz led a team of physicians on a medical mission to Bangladesh. Dr. Aziz, an attending surgeon and associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery and plastic and reconstructive surgery at the New Jersey Dental School, part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, has been back to Bangladesh with his team twice each year since.
“We were overwhelmed by the poverty and the need for surgery and the number of patients who had shown up to have us operate on them,” said Dr. Aziz, who earned his B.A. from Rutgers College in 1991.
To date, the team has performed 400 of cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries through Smile Bangladesh, the nonprofit founded by Aziz and his wife, Anita Puran. Puran, who earned her Ph.D. in public administration from Rutgers in 2003, is the group’s executive director.
There are an estimated 300,000 children and young adults with unrepaired cleft lips and cleft palates in Bangladesh, and fewer than 30 surgeons in the country who can repair them. Most of those surgeons, Dr. Aziz said, practice in the major cities, leaving many children in poor, rural areas in need of the surgery.
Children with cleft palates can develop significant speech and feeding problems. Cleft lip is an aesthetic deformity where the upper lip doesn’t develop properly.
“There’s a huge social stigma in Bangladesh for children with cleft lips,” Dr. Aziz said.
The children are not accepted into society, and they can’t go to school and function normally in their communities, he said. Additionally, the mother is often blamed for giving birth to a child with a cleft lip and she, too, is ostracized.
Smile Bangladesh typically performs 60 to 80 surgeries on each one- to two-week mission. Each trip costs $30,000, which covers everything from airfare, hotels and meals for the medical team to medication for patients, hospital stays, and any other costs associated with patient care. The surgery and associated medical care are free for the patients.
Dr. Aziz, who grew up in New Jersey, had long hoped to visit Bangladesh and meet his family.
After graduating from Rutgers, he earned a dental degree from Harvard University School of Dental Medicine and then later his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
In planning his first trip to Bangladesh, Dr. Aziz reached out to his relatives on the other side of the world to help him find the right contacts. Many of his early trips were funded through various organizations.
In March 2010, Dr. Aziz and his wife, who have two children of their own, officially formed Smile Bangladesh to organize and fund the medical missions that help hundreds children on the other side of the globe.