There is a Doctor in the House {Book Club}

I have been looking forward to today’s post since early May! When I announced our next seven books Velvet Ashes member Vivienne contacted me about the subject matter of  Wonder by R. J. Palacio (free PDF version). Guess what her husband does? He is a plastic surgeon who helps those with cranial facial anomalies. 

What?! I know. The connections books makes gets my blood pumping too.

I hadn’t read the book at that time and asked her if she thought her husband would be willing to be interviewed when it was closer to September and I’d read at least part of the book so I could ask intelligent questions. He was! It is with thanks to Vivienne and her husband Derick who recently returned from a surgical trip that we get to hear from someone who would have worked on a patient like August.

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Dr. Mendonca, thank you for taking time to share with us. Briefly, tell us about what type of medicine you practice and your current assignment.

I am a Plastic Surgeon, currently establishing a Complex Facial Reconstruction Surgery program in Bangalore, India. I work at 2 hospitals: Bangalore Baptist hospital (Mission hospital) and Sakra World hospital (Japanese tertiary referral hospital). I also do outreach surgical camps in India and Uganda to offer reconstructive surgery to those in need.

In the book Wonder the story is told through a variety of characters, starting with the protagonist August. We hear from his sister and friends, but interestingly none of his doctors or nurses. Is there a particular patient you find yourself thinking of, even now, maybe years later? What about this patient stays with you?

Yes, doctors and nurses do think about their patients often. It is just that we see so many people everyday, it tends to get a bit busy. I can remember one particular patient of mine, who had a major facial abnormality. She was 16 when I met her but had lived with facial deformity from birth. What struck me about her was her tremendous resilience, strong personality and inner strength to fight through life with all the bullying, teasing in school, stares from the public when walking on the roads. Sometimes we place too much importance on beauty, perfection and symmetry. I remember her profound sense of gratitude, that I was able to improve her appearance.

As a Christian doctor, where do you experience redemption as you work with patients you have craniofacial anomalies?

I experience my satisfaction and get a “kick” out of the realization that I’m using God given skills to make a difference for my patients. Often, these patients come from poor social backgrounds with limited finances. In addition, they have very low self esteem resulting in poor confidence and social isolation. After successful surgery their confidence improves so that they can face society. The patient I was remembering was so happy with her result, that she decided to enroll for college and move forward with her education.

On the flip side, what is a discouraging part of your work?

I struggle with the biological response of scar formation. Despite technological advances, scar formation following surgery is inevitable. Sometimes, it can be extensive and obvious. Another area I am particularly discouraged about is our society’s response to children and adults with facial disfigurement. For example, even today children born with cleft lip are shunned and made fun of. While this may have improved in the West, societal attitudes in India and other developing countries are slow to change. We see that in young women with facial deformities unable to find a marriage partner, or get jobs that involve facing the public. Our society tends to idolize models with perfect bodies and faces, and these attitudes have been reinforced by social media.

How has working with those with craniofacial anomalies formed and informed you as a Christian?

Working for children and adults with craniofacial anomalies is my calling. As a Christian plastic surgeon, I could make lots of money doing cosmetic surgery and pursue fame and glamour. I believe that access to life-changing surgery should not be denied due to lack of ability to pay. There are still many countries in the world that do not have access to good plastic reconstructive surgery skills and services. Jesus said that if you do anything for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me. I believe that in totality and want to live my life in that service.

Wow, what a gift you have offered us. On behalf of all who will read and benefit from this interview, thank you. I’m already thinking of a niece I can share this with who loves Wonder and wants to be a nurse in Africa when she grows up. Thanks again!

*****

Not only do we have this fantastic interview, we also have three chapters to discuss. I’ll briefly share thoughts on each one.

Summer: This chapter was very hard for me to read because it brought back a girl from my elementary school: Barbara (I don’t want to say her last name because I’m still haunted by not standing up for her more.). Other kids would not want to touch her and talked about “Barbara X’s Cooties.” While I did not actively participate, I did not actively tell them to shut up and stop being jerks.

This chapter made me think about Summer being biracial and how, to a certain extent, we are all bicultural. How do we use our biculturalness to help bring good into being? How do we, like Summer, avoid playing social games?

Jack: In my notes I wrote: “Chapter on ice cream!! Now I get it.” For those of you who had finished the book before reading last week’s post where I shared how the author came up with the idea, you must have been smiling. I appreciate that she worked the scene from her real life into the book.

“Somethings you just can’t explain. You don’t even try. You don’t know where to start. All your sentences would jumble up like a giant knot if you opened your mouth. Any words you used would come out wrong.” Oh Jack, we get it. I love Jack.

Justin:  For dear Justin, I wrote this in my notes: “You are in high school, please use capital letters at the beginning of your sentences.” Apparently I talk to the characters :). What I appreciate about Justin is the way he holds the space for the ripple effect in a family. There is Auggie who is most directly effected by his birth defect. Then we have his immediate family and, as readers, we get glimpses into how their lives are influenced by their ties to Auggie. We also have Auggie’s direct friends, but the ripples don’t stop there. Through Justin, we see the ripples going out.

So often, in cross-cultural life, I forget the ripples and the ways so much more is going on than I realize. This is  good word to us, isn’t it?

WHEW. We’ve got a lot going on today! In the comments let’s thank Dr. Mendonca and discuss these chapters. 🙂

Amy

P.S. Reading plan

August 30—Parts 1 and 2

Sept 6— Parts 3-5

Sept 13—Parts 6-8 . . . if you can believe it, we’ve got another treat for next week! 

16 Comments

  1. Sarah Hilkemann September 5, 2016

    Thank you for sharing the interview with Dr. Mendonca!

    I have really enjoyed reading Wonder. It is neat to hear from other people in August’s life too. I really resonated with the section from Via’s point of view (I know that is in last week’s discussion), because I’m the big sister and I have walked through some different medical issues with my siblings over the years where all the attention was on them and I felt very much like I was in the shadows. I’m learning that is where I retreat to even now, because it is somehow safe.

    I was really glad we got to find out more about Jack’s story, and to see that he and August became friends again. 🙂

    1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

      I was so happy too when Jack and Auggie figured out what had derailed them and moved past it. It also seemed so wonderfully “boy” — able to say what needed to be said and move on. I wish I was wired more to move on 🙂 . . . and not so good at rehashing stuff in my mind!

  2. Kiera September 6, 2016

    I felt the same about Justin’s chapter – use capital letters and punctuation! Beyond being annoying to me, I hope it would underline to younger readers that capitalization and punctuation have a purpose and that things get confusing without it. There is an ongoing theme in the book about there being two sides to every story. When you initially read in the first section what Jack says about August on Halloween, it seems like he’s such a terrible person, but then reading from Jack’s point of view it comes across so understandably – some dumb, off-the-cuff remark. Still it emphasizes the fact that we need to guard our speech as if the person we are speaking about could hear everything we say. Curious – does your version have “the Julian chapter” at the end? The hard copy I bought had a sticker on the front saying “now including the Julian chapter for the first time in print” or something like that. Before I had read anything, I didn’t know what that meant but I just forget about it. But getting to the end and then having “the Julian chapter” it’s pretty interesting. It definitely underlines the theme of every story having two (or more) sides.

    I appreciated the interview with Dr. Mendonca. In Asia, there is such an emphasis on plastic surgery to “improve” a person’s appearance (well, similar in the U.S. maybe, but if feels even more prevalent here) that I can get so tired of it and lump all plastic surgery together into a big superficial, shallow, obsessed with “beauty” lump. It’s good to read the interview with Dr. Mendonca to be reminded that plastic surgery has some definite positive, legitimate uses to restore people who have been either born with abnormalities or who have suffered trauma. I appreciate Dr. Mendonca using his skill to be the hand (literally) of Christ to people with these needs.

    I was curious throughout reading the book about what August actually looked like – he declines to describe his face in the beginning “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Via describes his face, (I think it was Via) and you get a sense that his features are not where they should be, but it’s still kind of hard to picture. So, I googled craniofacial abnormalities and clicked on images. I wanted to get a sense for how I would genuinely react if I encountered someone like August and I don’t know if it would be possible to avoid that “moment” August talks about when people see him for the first time. It makes the actions of Summer that much more praise-worthy. Of course, Mr. Tushman is another hero in his acceptance of August. But you want to expect that from adults. For someone of Summer’s age to be able to be that accepting would, I think, be truly remarkable.

    1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

      I hadn’t even heard of “the Julian chapter” — :). So, either I’m really unobservant, OR my book doesn’t have it. Let’s go with the later! Thanks to you, Kiera, I did some research (called, explored Amazon!) and found out you can buy it for a couple of bucks. I did search for a free version but couldn’t find one! However, it just may be worth the price! From what I read, people who were afraid it wouldn’t be handed well said their fears were unfounded.

      I have also had a slight bias/misunderstanding of “all” plastic surgeons. To hear from one who loves the Lord and serving the least of these, was fitting with the theme you pulled out, wasn’t it?! There are indeed often two or more sides!

      1. Ruth September 9, 2016

        The Julian Chapter is another book from Julian’s perspective. There are also short books Shingaling (Charlotte’s perspective) and Pluto (Chris’ perspective). So when you finish this, it’s not over!! I found them all on our digital library.

        1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

          Oh man! Now I need to update next week’s post :). AND try and find them!!!! Thank you (I feel a bit like a drug addict thanking her dealer, only from an enhanced life, and not a wrecked one :))

    2. Michele Womble September 12, 2016

      I felt bad for Jack, and I was relieved when Auggie and Jack reconciled, too. And I’m so glad you said… “Still it emphasizes the fact that we need to guard our speech as if the person we are speaking about could hear everything we say”! oh, yes! As a kid, I heard people talking about me when they thought I couldn’t hear – and although it was nothing like Auggie’s experience, it still hurt me. Ever since then I’ve been hyper sensitive (my kids say overly so) about that – probably not always for the right reasons, but still it’s a good policy to always assume that people could hear me or that my words could be passed on…and talk accordingly. What would we want to be passed on? How would we want them to hear the interaction if they overheard it? It helps to imagine everything I’ve ever said about anyone being made known in heaven – (cringe) – to help me rethink and rephrase even the things that NEED to be said – I love how you put it, Kiera, “guard our speech as if …(they) could hear everything we say”…

  3. Spring September 6, 2016

    Wow thanks so much for doing this interview. How insightful!

    I keep having to stop myself from reading more! I have just started both of my middle schoolers on reading this book, it is so good.

    I loved what Summer did but sometimes feel I lack the courage, and figuring out other cultures while not “playing the games”?, that feels darn near inpossible.

    1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

      Spring, I’m glad you can share it with your middle schoolers! Fun to read with family, isn’t it?! Maybe what we need to realize is we start where we are and we take baby steps. AND that baby steps matter! Smiling at the fruit lady who others are rude to? It matters.Giving to a beggar and looking them in the eye, it matters. It might seem so small we want to discount it (at least I do — it’s not grand and sweeping and world changing. But you know what, when someone is kind to me, it does impact my world. I remember them and walk a little taller because I was noticed). All this to say, I get it and I think sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves!

  4. Lily September 7, 2016

    It was brilliant to hear from the doctor! I read this book last winter and found it, indeed, to be amazing.

    I wonder if anyone has a thought on this “ice cream moment” question: I nanny for a family that includes a boy with mental delays, who doesn’t always understand or follow directions. (I’m still working out how much is currently beyond him and how much is lack of training to listen/obey.) They had a family friend visit one day last week, a pre-teen with an prosthetic leg, and this little boy kept wanting to touch it, which made her uncomfortable. It was tough to find the balance between answering his curiosity and respecting her personal space/need for privacy. How do you mothers of 3-year-olds (his mental age) find that balance when your children encounter people with physical differences? Or how do those living with such differences wish that young children’s caregivers would respond? I too have been the odd one out as a white person in China, but I know choosing my own attitude toward stares and comments is not the same as the challenge my friends with your children faced when those young ones would be tired of or even resentful of the attention.

    1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

      Lily, I’m not a mom to a three-year old, I’ll mention your comment in the post next week and hope a mom will answer. This is a good question and I know you’re not the only one to face it!

  5. Ruth September 8, 2016

    So interesting to hear from the doctor’s perspective!

    1. Amy Young September 9, 2016

      Thanks Ruth, that’s what I thought too :). And I meant to reply to your comment last week and then I didn’t and now time has moved on and here we are! I would imagine the themes this book addresses have resonated with some of what your sister experiences (and what you experience as her sister!). Thanks for sharing that piece of your story!

  6. Michele Womble September 12, 2016

    It’s interesting that while I did notice the lack of punctuation and capitalization in Justin’s section, I didn’t really register it much while reading it – it didn’t bother me. While I do feel like punctuation and capitalization is important :-), I felt like it helped define Justin for me: a teenager who is exploring and experimenting with self-expression – and probably studying e.e. cummings’ poetry in English class. I felt like it fit him.

    I was really touched when Justin said (about Auggie and Via’s parents) “and they’re listening to every word like they’re really interested….” then says about Auggie’s dog …”like she knows she lucked out that day finding this family. i kind of know how she feels…” – with all the issues – the hurt, hardship, pain, that the family has to go through…they are the cool family, the one Justin wants to be with, with whom he feels comfortable, cared about, wanted, Justin’s own “normal” family comes up lacking compared with them. In spite of the things that Auggie and Via’s parents “miss” in trying to help both their children – they are great parents. They aren’t perfect, but they do care and they are trying, and an “outsider” sees and feels the difference very clearly.

    My heart broke for him as he searched for the right words to describe his parents lack of involvement – the opposite of overprotective. And declared that he was going to be an overprotective dad one day. “my kids are going to know i care”….

    1. Michele Womble September 12, 2016

      …even thought the situation is a struggle, and Via sometimes felt – or WAS – overlooked because of Auggie’s needs, I think Auggie and Via both knew their parents cared.

  7. My top 15 books in 2016 - The Messy Middle December 28, 2016

    […] me better than they found me. This was Velvet Ashes book club choice for September. Here’s an interview with a doctor who works with these patients and a post by a friend in Velvet Ashes with a son with this […]

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