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NMSU faculty member reaches out to children in developing countries

About one in every 700 children is born with a cleft lip or palate, and many in developing countries do not receive reconstructive surgery. But a New Mexico State University professor is helping to change that through her work in an international humanitarian organization.

Marlene Salas-Provance, New Mexico State University associate professor of special education and communication disorders in the College of Education, examines a boy with cleft lip and palate while working with the humanitarian organization Rotaplast International in Shijiazhuang City, China. (Courtesy photo)

Marlene Salas-Provance, associate professor of special education and communication disorders in the College of Education, traveled to Shijiazhuang City, China, for two weeks at the end of the year as part of a cleft palate team with Rotaplast International. The team worked at the Shijiazhuang No. 1 Hospital to provide evaluations, surgeries and therapy to children with cleft lip and palate from the surrounding area.

Salas-Provance screened 175 children who were being considered for possible surgeries, with 116 of these children qualifying for and receiving surgery to fix their cleft lip and palates. As well as evaluating patients, Salas-Provance worked with the children on their sound production before and after surgery and helped construct prosthetic appliances with the Rotaplast orthodontist and hospital dental staff for those unable to receive surgery. She also referred children for continuing speech therapy to the city's only speech-language pathologist at the hospital.

"We do this to help children who would not normally receive these kinds of services. Seeing how thankful families are is very rewarding," she said.

In the United States, there are nearly 100,000 speech-language pathologists; however, there are only a handful of speech-language pathologists in China, limiting the opportunities of direct therapy for children. Because of this, Salas-Provance worked with parents to give them information about early speech and language development and taught them therapy techniques to use at home.

In keeping with Rotaplast's vision of long-term solutions, Salas-Provance presented a lecture titled "Foundations of Cleft Lip and Palate: Speech, Hearing and Feeding," during a medical seminar that included the Rotaplast team and local physicians.

Salas-Provance said the experiences gained from the trip can be put to good use in NMSU classrooms.

"Because we teach a graduate course about cleft lip and palate at NMSU, we can use the knowledge gained from working in another country to give students a world perspective," she said.

Speech and hearing services are provided to children with cleft lip and palate at the NMSU Edgar R. Garrett Speech and Hearing Center. The center will hold three Cleft Palate Clinics this year with a team of up to ten professionals from the N.M. Children Medical Services. This provides practical training opportunities for students.

Salas-Provance has traveled to the Philippines, El Salvador, Venezuela and Peru to work with children and their families since becoming involved with Rotaplast in 2002.

Rotaplast International provides free reconstructive surgery and treatment to those with cleft lip and palate in developing countries. The organization helps train local physicians, counsels families and collaborates with health officials on the development of sustainable cleft palate programs.