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READYING HIMSELF FOR HIS DEMONSTRATION the next day, David Leber, M.D. ’63 dropped a few pounds of potatoes in water and lemon juice and left them to soak overnight.

The next day they were the perfect texture—they felt just like human ribs.

Leber, who retired in December 2015 after a distinguished career as a plastic surgeon in Harrisburg, was overseas on one his 34 surgical mission trips to teach Indian and Nepalese doctors how to reconstruct ears. The actual procedure involves removing some cartilage from a patient’s rib, carving it into the shape of the patient’s functional ear, and grafting it into place. A complex surgery that few doctors have perfected, Leber has worked diligently over the years to increase the number of surgeons who can complete the complicated ear reconstructions.

Thanks in part to the skills he developed as an undergrad on the pre-medical track at Albright, he’s also completed a few of his own.

Leber-timelineSETTING THE STAGE

Legendary zoologist and assistant professor of biology Albert Schwartz, Ph.D., spent much of the 1950s and 1960s selecting students to accompany him on his frequent expeditions to the Caribbean to catalog species of amphibians, butterflies and reptiles.

One of those students was Leber, a gifted artist and aspiring doctor. Leber’s first excursion, to Cuba, was originally expected to last for a year but got cut short after the United States closed its embassy in Havana in January 1961. Undeterred, Schwartz, Leber and a cast of other Albright students spent the following months–and the next few summers–island-hopping in the West Indies.

“It opened my eyes to the Third World, for one thing,” says Leber.

As a student, Leber became skilled at taking photos of birds and carefully skinning them so they could be cataloged by Schwartz, who died in 1992. He drew lifelike illustrations of species the crew found–about 250 altogether, each taking an hour to complete. As he did with several student researchers, Schwartz paid tribute to Leber by naming two species after him: Eleutherodactylus leberi, an eastern Cuban frog, and Anolis ricordi leberi, a lizard native to Haiti.

Leber’s artistic eye and attention to detail, cultivated with Schwartz in the tropics, were clear even during his youth in north-central Pennsylvania. During his senior year at South Williamsport High School he constructed a prizewinning 35-pound papiermache model of the human body for the school science fair. He borrowed anatomy textbooks from his family doctor to ensure his model was accurate.

He knew about Albright because of his father, the Rev. Clair L. Leber ’38, and chose to attend because of its reputation for successful admission to medical schools. Leber’s penchant for art led to plastic surgery, which he saw as a way to combine both. But, he is quick to point out misperceptions, noting that plastic surgeons do a lot more than “nose jobs and butt lifts.”

For example, take surgery to close a cleft palate, which results when the roof of the mouth doesn’t close correctly in utero. This condition is one of the most common birth defects in the United States and, in developed countries, are usually repaired in a series of surgeries that begin in infancy. Left untreated, the deformity grows, leading to problems with eating and talking and crippling social isolation. Closing a cleft palate can change a patient’s life, Leber says.

THE SKILL PATIENTS NEEDED

Pediatric surgeon Domingo Alvear and his wife, anesthesiologist Veneranda Alvear, started the World Surgical Foundation in 1997 to conduct free surgeries for disadvantaged people in developing nations like their native Philippines. The organization’s first mission was in Honduras. The surgical team saw numerous patients with malformed ears that looked like tiny stumps of skin on the sides of their heads.

Domingo Alvear knew he needed a plastic surgeon on his team. He’d been friends with Leber since his stint as a fellow at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, where Leber was teaching. Alvear knew Leber was exceedingly skilled at complicated ear reconstructions.

“Dr. Leber is very talented, and he’s an artist as far as I’m concerned,” says Alvear, who lives in Mechanicsburg.

Leber answered the Alvears’ call. While managing the practice he ran with another plastic surgeon, Leber volunteered on more than 30 surgical missions with three charities. About a third of these missions were in the Philippines. The rest were in an array of countries including India, Iran, Thailand and Ecuador. Dozens of surgeries were packed into a week–Leber and teams of local nurses would sometimes repair 10 cleft lips in a day.

Each face transformed, each tumor removed, each burn scar repaired, gave someone hope for a better life. “One lady couldn’t get married until she got her palate fixed,” Leber says.

TOTAL TRUST

In some areas where the World Surgical Foundation conducts its missions, the obstacle is a shortage of doctors. In other places the cost of surgery puts relatively simple procedures out of reach for those living in dire poverty.

“Even if they went to a government hospital, sometimes they would have to pay for the antibiotics or the IV fluid,” Alvear explains. “There are thousands and thousands of people and no one to take care of them,” Leber says. “Even if there are doctors, they don’t take care of them because they’re poor.”

Organizing each two-week trip can take a year of planning, Alvear explains. It all starts with connections between the United States and the areas where surgeons are in short supply. A retired pediatric surgeon in Honduras hosted a World Surgical Foundation delegation there. The Alvears know surgeons in the Philippines. Return visits are common because word spreads about trustworthy doctors. And the Americans have to go to places with competent medical personnel, Alvear says. “Somebody will have to take care of them after you leave, to take the stitches out.”

With waiting rooms full of dozens of people who heard about “surgical camps” from flyers and radio advertisements, one of the challenges is deciding whom to treat. On teaching missions, Leber explains, people whose conditions are the best examples for doctors in training are the best candidates for surgery. The doctors also consider which patients have the best chance of successful recovery.

Leber says the families of patients who were chosen showed remarkable gratitude.

“These moms, they just hand their kids over to you,” he says.

“Total trust.”


Below: Working with resident doctors in the nine countries in which he’s travelled—Bangladesh, China, Ecuador, Honduras, India, Iran, Nepal, Philippines and Thailand—David Leber, M.D. ’63 has repaired cleft lips, reconstructed ears and changed the lives of his patients.

Photos Courtesy of David Leber, M.D. ’63

cleft-ear
mother-child-waiting-room
basket-building

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