Jerry Popham, ’85 M.D., has felt a strong internal motivation to help people through medicine from the time he was a child. It’s a drive he can’t quite explain, since no one in his family had ever gone into medicine as a profession, but it’s one that has guided his life.
“I know that from the time I was three years old that I wanted to be a physician, and I counted that as a real blessing,” said Popham. “I think you’re very lucky if you can know from an early age what you really want to do, and then be lucky enough also to actually end up doing it. I have a great deal of gratitude to the University of South Dakota for making that possible.”
Since that tender age, Popham has transformed his inborn passion into a thriving career as an oculoplastic surgeon in Denver, Colo., and has also applied it to a lifetime of service to others across the globe. Every spring since 1995, Popham has joined a world-class team of specialists in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An, Vietnam, in order to serve the country’s most vulnerable residents. Through Popham’s About Face Foundation, a small nonprofit organization, they provide vital facial surgeries and other medical services, changing the lives of the people they touch forever.
To understand exactly how Popham and his team came to forge a connection with the people of Vietnam, one has to go back several decades, to the end of the Vietnam War. In 1975, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and U.S. and South Vietnamese forces departed the city, a woman named Betty Tisdale was organizing something called a “baby lift.” Tisdale, known as the Angel of Saigon, operated orphanages in the region and, amidst the chaos of the final days of the conflict, was trying to get as many of her children out of the country and into the United States as quickly as possible. Though many arrived safely and were adopted, sadly, one of the aircraft Tisdale secured crashed, killing most of the children on board. One of the survivors was eventually adopted by an American family, however, and became the nephew of Bill LeTourneau, a Christian missionary based in Denver, Colo.
As a result, LeTourneau developed a keen interest in helping the Vietnamese people—particularly its children—and years later, when the country re-opened to U.S. tourism in 1993 (and thanks to the efforts of then-President Clinton), he made his first visit. While there, during a meeting with government officials, LeTourneau requested permission to work with the Christian churches in Vietnam. In return, he would bring software engineers, medical professionals and English teachers with him.
And this is where Popham enters the story. One night, when he was new in practice in Denver, Popham was seeing an emergency patient at the hospital. During an off-hand
conversation with one of his colleagues, the two discovered a mutual dream of working in third-world countries and helping children. His colleague happened to know a gentleman by the name of Bill LeTourneau.
“So, we began to conspire, and in January of 1995, we did our first trip,” said Popham. “Through that contact, we began working with two different maxillofacial hospitals in Saigon. And, I guess the rest is history.”
According to Popham, LeTourneau partnered with the small group of physicians, accompanying them during the early years and assisting them in growing their network of contacts until the year 2000, when LeTourneau died of a massive heart attack while with the team in Vietnam.
“I always say that he left his heart in Vietnam,” said Popham.
The team initially worked in two different hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), feeling the urban setting provided an ideal location in terms of available medical facilities and access to the population. However, over the years, the city has undergone dramatic economic and social development and as a result, Popham and his associates began to explore other areas of greater need within Vietnam. For the past four years, they have transitioned their efforts from Saigon to Hoi An, a small city of 50-60,000 people located on the seacoast.
The service group typically consists of approximately 20 or so world-class medical professionals—physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians and surgical assistants—who generally spend two to three weeks per visit. All of the physicians are specialists in facial reconstruction of one form or another. Popham, for example, specializes in the area around the eye, while others specialize in the oral-maxillofacial area. More recently, the team has added an ear, nose and throat specialist.
“I have a really strong feeling that we have assembled, truly, one of the finest teams of physicians possible for this kind of work,” noted Popham. “We have every specialty and subspecialty covered, and I’m just really proud of the team and what we’re able to accomplish. We have the chairman of pediatric craniofacial surgery from the University of Florida. We have a pediatric anesthesiologist from Harvard medical school in Boston. This year, we have the chairman of oral-maxillofacial surgery from Ohio State University on our team. We really have hit the bullseye in terms of great talent and care for these children.”
Most strikingly, all of the care the team provides to dozens of patients each year is free of charge. “To give you some perspective, we probably operate on 60-70 a year, and we’ve been doing this for almost 20 years,” Popham explained. “So that’s over 1,000 people and the vast
majority of them are children. We just have had a great track record, and have provided high-level, first-world care in a thirdworld country.”
The cases Popham encounters range from facial clefts to complex cases requiring years of surgeries and amounting to complete facial reconstructions. For example, acid attacks are common in Vietnam, where more powerful weapons like handguns aren’t easily accessible. These attacks leave victims disfigured, blind and often missing their eyelids, noses and lips. Popham and his team have treated a number of such patients, repairing damaged tissue and, in some cases, restoring patients’ sight.
Though they accomplish most of their work at hospitals within Vietnam, they occasionally encounter cases that are too complicated or risky to perform overseas. They transport these patients back to the U.S. and perform the surgeries under a more controlled environment.
For the patients who benefit from these services, the impact is much more than skin-deep. In Vietnam, children with deformities or disfiguring injuries are kept hidden and out of the social structure of the community.
According to Viet Le, M.D., an oral maxillofacial surgeon and one of Popham’s primary contacts in Ho Chi Minh City, the healing Popham and the team provides is nothing short of life-changing.
“Dr. Jerry Popham has brought happiness and normal lives to a lot of poor and unhappy Vietnamese children who suffered from malformations around the eyes—not only in physical healing but in social, educational and employment opportunities,” she said.
In addition to the medical treatments and surgeries, Popham and the team provide teaching and training services to Vietnamese surgeons, a vital step in ensuring the continuing availability of high-quality medical services in the team’s absence.
“We really respect and love our American friends, [and] both our poor children and our young surgeons benefit much from their help,” said Viet. “We are grateful for their assistance and time and [look forward to] their presence every year in Vietnam.”
In the future, Popham says he hopes to spend less time practicing in the U.S. and more time practicing in Vietnam, where he expects the group’s efforts will expand even further— perhaps outside the country into Laos.
“There’s a pulmonologist in Denver who recently contacted me about a group of about 100 patients who are blind due to cataracts,” said Popham. “As an oculoplastic surgeon, I don’t do cataracts, but I have many friends who are ophthalmologists, so I’ve begun contacting people
and am trying to organize a trip to go over and take care of this group of patients who have cataracts.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Popham says he feels incredible gratitude for a life wherein he can fulfill dual lifelong dreams: practicing medicine and helping children.
“My basic philosophy is that of a Christian, so I believe in service to my fellow man and putting others first,” he said. “I think if you end up doing what inspires you and you are passionate about what you’re doing, then your work doesn’t really feel like work at all. It feels more like what you’re meant to do. It’s a great thing,” Popham added.
About Jerry Popham, M.D.
Sioux Falls, S.D. native Jerry Popham, M.D. received his medical degree at USD in 1985 before attending a fellowship program and advanced training in oculoplastic surgery at Harvard Medical School and residency in microsurgical techniques of ophthalmic and intraocular surgery at Texas A&M University Medical School. An accomplished physician and clinical professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Dr. Popham founded the non-profit organization About Face Foundation (also known as the About Grace Foundation). In 2004, he was recognized by the Health Minister of Vietnam for his service to the Vietnamese people. In addition to his philanthropic and humanitarian dedication, Dr. Popham is widely published and was five times voted as his adopted state’s best plastic surgeon. His work pioneering minimally invasive, small-incision surgical techniques are widely regarded as cutting-edge and at the forefront of the science in which he works.
This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of South Dakotan M.D. magazine. Read the full issue.
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