Global Reach of UC Davis Health humanitarians changes lives


The expertise of UC Davis Health providers and researchers has long influenced health care and scientific understanding around the world, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. And something else has also had a global impact for years – the compassion and humanitarian work of its people.

Neal W. Fleming is helping change lives around the globe, including in Vietnam (left) and India.
Neal W. Fleming is helping change lives around the globe, including in Vietnam (left) and India.

A two-decade-plus example of that is UC Davis Health professor of anesthesia and pain medicine Neal W. Fleming and his work to help the mission of Rotaplast International. Rotaplast provides free comprehensive care for children throughout the world with cleft lip and palate deformities. Fleming, who has been on more than two dozen trips with the group, has been volunteering to travel the globe since 1999.

“What we do changes lives – for the volunteers, for the patients, for their families,” Fleming said. “The need is there and likely always will be. Now we are better able to leverage our skills and focus more on training, education and supporting local physicians and hospitals after we leave.”

It is hard to overstate how much the Rotaplast efforts change the lives of the people they help. There was, for example, the 11-year-old girl in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. After her cleft lip was repaired, her parents took her to the courthouse and registered her birth. Before then, she did not legally exist. 

Most surgeries are done on children, but a few of the new smiles Fleming remembers most come from older patients, such the woman in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, who had her cleft lip repaired at age 80.

Fleming’s first Rotaplast mission in 1999 was to Maracaibo, Venezuela. He was part of a team that ran five operating rooms and treated more than 150 patients. Since that trip, more than 200 UC Davis faculty, alumni, residents and certified registered nurse anesthetists have also volunteered on Rotaplast teams.

Fleming has served on Rotaplast’s board of directors, including a term as the board’s chair, and is still their director of anesthesia. Pre-COVID-19, the group sponsored 10-12 trips a year, each taking about six months to mount as the organization reviewed sites, raised donations, assembled teams and managed all the logistics of travel and follow-up.

Near the start of this year, Fleming was on a Rotaplast trip to Firozabad, India, where they completed more than 140 procedures and returned home just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning.

“Now, we’re in modified hibernation,” Fleming said. “We’re minimizing our maintenance expenses and trying to figure out how to best help our hosts as they, too, deal with COVID-19. We know they and their patients will need us when we can finally go back to help them.”