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Gratitude in Guatemala
06/27/2008 - By Teja Anderson

Gratitude in Guatemala

Dr. John Young, Jr.- a doctor with no borders, just a big heart!

     Dr. John Young, Jr., of Colts Neck has been creating beautiful smiles in Monmouth County for 15 years, but it was his recent mission to the Hospital de la Familia in Nuevo Progreso, Guatemala, where he assisted on the Cleft Palate/Plastic Surgery team, that makes him a true standout.

     A Leo and a self-professed born leader, Dr. Young recently converted his wine cellar into a music room for his collection of 30-plus guitars, and jokes that if his career in dentistry doesn’t pan out he’ll be going on tour. He grew up as a shy kid in Staten Island, playing the trumpet in the school band, but he credits his fraternity, Zeta Beta Epsilon at Adelphi University in Long Island, for building up his confidence and making him feel that he could do anything he put his mind to. Luckily, he has put his mind toward many good causes and charities, including the Beauty Foundation for Women’s Cancer Care and Beauty Ball Event and the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank, where he treats patients gratis!

     Dr. Young, his beautiful wife, Rosemarie, and their four daughters, Cassidy, 12, and identical 11-year-old triplets Jamie, Rebecca, and Courtney, have been happily ensconced in the Colts Neck community for the past 14 years.  A summa cum laude graduate of Georgetown University School of Dentistry in Washington, DC, and a member of the Regional Cleft Palate Center in Long Branch, Dr. Young is on staff and is a teaching instructor at Monmouth Medical Center. It was here that he met plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Norwitz and joined his cause and team for the Hospital de la Familia Foundation to help the children of Guatemala. Fresh from his first volunteer mission [in February] to provide cleft palate surgeries and treatments, Dr. Young sat down with Living In Colts Neck to discuss his recent trip.


LICN: Where did you grow up?JY: I was born in Staten Island and grew up there.

LICN: What do you remember most about growing up there?

JY: I guess hanging out. We used to go out every day on the streets, playing kickball, which kids don’t do these days. We walked to school every day, too. I was pretty heavily involved in the Boy Scouts. I also played baseball a lot as a kid.

LICN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

JY: I knew I wanted to be somewhere in the health field. I knew by the time I graduated from high school, actually – already as a senior – that I either wanted to go into medicine to be a plastic surgeon or go into dentistry and be an orthodontist. As a senior I did some rotations through some hospitals, but I didn’t like the atmosphere; it was too depressing for me, so I went into dentistry. I never wanted to be in general dentistry, though; I always knew I wanted to be an orthodontist.

LICN: Why? Did you have braces as a kid?

JY: Yes, I did.

LICN: Was that a good experience?

JY: Ah, no, it wasn’t, because the guy I went to was like 80 years old, and back then it was pretty archaic – especially him – because he was kind of behind the times. He had all these crazy wires and he had the worst breath, too. One time I was sitting in the waiting room with my mom and the room was decorated like the “Brady Bunch” set – orange leather chairs, like the ’70s – and my Mom said, “I think maybe you should be an orthodontist when you grow up…” because the office was so busy and I was like, “No way, José!” And look at me now.

LICN: How did you meet your wife Rosemarie?

JY: In a high school play. She was a dancer/actress, and I was in the band. I played the trumpet; I play trumpet and guitar.

LICN: How did you end up in Colts Neck?

JY: In high school and in college, we used to drive down here and go to Delicious Orchards and go pumpkin picking. My wife, well, she was my girlfriend at the time, and she used to say how beautiful it was and how she would love to live here. I never thought that it would happen. But when I was looking for job opportunities, I met a dentist from Holmdel who I became partners with. We moved down to Monmouth County in 1992 when I started practicing here. We lived in Holmdel for 2 years, and then we moved to Colts Neck in 1994.

LICN: Let’s talk about the really important work that you are doing now. Tell me about your recent trip to Guatemala and how you got involved with this amazing group. 

JY: Yes, it’s for the Hospital de la Familia Foundation in Nuevo Progreso.

LICN: How often does your group go down there and for how long?

JY: Our particular team is scheduled to go every 2 years. There are eight teams that rotate through this facility every 3 months. We were there for 10 days.

LICN: How many people are on each team?

JY: There were 30 of us on the team this year. We basically broke into three teams – the Cleft Palate/Plastic Surgery team, which I was on with two plastic surgeons from California, and a cranial/facial resident, also from California. Then there was a General Surgery team with a general surgeon from Bayshore Hospital, Dr. Balbarber; a surgical resident from Monmouth Medical, Adam Zimmerman; and then an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) team with a fellowship ENT resident from San Francisco and a doctor from North Carolina. The rest were auxiliary personnel: nurses, CRNAs (certified registered nurse anesthetists), translators, and scrub techs. Also there was one anesthesiologist doctor with us.

LICN: How many patients were you able to treat in that 10-day period?

JY: We completed 93 surgeries in 5½ surgery days and examined over 250 additional patients in the clinics. My team was responsible for about a third of these surgeries.

LICN: You were treating adults as well?

JY: Yes. We treated mostly babies and children, but we did have some adults who had cleft palates that had never been fixed, so we treated them as well.

LICN: How did you find this group, or did they find you?

JY: I found them because of my affiliation with the cleft palate team at Monmouth Medical. The ex-director there, Dr. Steve Norwitz, was the team leader for this particular expedition for years. He’s a plastic surgeon. This was his baby – he is the one who got it up and running and got me involved. He had been running this team for the past 25 years. He has since retired, so we are looking for a new team leader.

LICN: So you are looking for someone from this area?

JY: Yes, the group is based here in New Jersey.  The whole support team is from around here. We needed to get the outside doctors because he retired.

LICN: What makes you such an asset to this team of doctors?

JY: Well, my specialty is obviously orthodontics. One of my subspecialties…I am on staff at Monmouth Medical and I’m the orthodontist on the cleft palate team there. The reason they need an orthodontist is because kids born with cleft palates have all sorts of issues – cosmetic, facial – but the alveolar arch where their teeth form is totally misshapen and malformed. Sometimes the hole in the palate or roof of the mouth is just on one side, or it’s bilateral (on two sides) and goes all the way through. Obviously, if that area is in three pieces, your teeth aren’t going to come in too straight. We need to treat these babies right when they are born so that they can nurse or drink from a bottle.

LICN: How can they breathe?

JY: Breathing isn’t the problem…it’s sucking. They can’t form a seal, so they are unable to drink.

LICN: Are a lot of babies born with cleft palates?

JY: About 1 in 600 babies are born with some type of cleft lip or cleft palate. In this area we see it mostly in the Hispanic and Hasidic Jewish communities. We don’t know what causes it exactly, but partly it’s genetic and partly environmental. Poor prenatal care is a big reason, and some say lack of folic acid. We see it more in third-world countries because a lot of times the women don’t even know that they are pregnant, and so they aren’t getting the proper nutrition; even if they know, they can’t afford it [prenatal care] or it’s not available to them.

LICN: So how do you fix the clefts?

JY: What I do is see them right when they are born, take a mold, and make an appliance that fits into that hole to enable them to eat. We also use that appliance to help reshape their jaw for their first year of life, until they get surgery. At about 1 year old we can close up the palate surgically.

LICN: What about these kids that you treated in Guatemala?

JY: Most of these kids, when we see them, are about 1 year old already; that was about the youngest we saw them, unfortunately.

LICN: So how have they been eating up until now?

JY: It isn’t easy. These babies who didn’t have the luxury of my services, sometimes they have to be fed through an NG (nasogastric) tube.  Feeding is a real nightmare. Milk goes in, it comes back out of their nose, and it takes them three times longer to eat than a normal baby. Then some lose weight because they are expending more calories trying to eat than they are actually taking in. They have a much higher incidence of ear infections because the milk and mucus get up into the nasal passages through the Eustachian tubes.

LICN: Do any of them die?

JY: No, not really…even in Guatemala they eventually make it. But their quality of life is not very good, and there can be lasting speech and hearing problems. What I am able to do is greatly improve their quality of life, not just for the babies, but also for their parents. When they can feed their babies normally, they can have a normal maternal bonding.

LICN: What does the appliance look like?

JY: It’s like a little clear plastic retainer. They are custom made. I take an impression, make the mold, and then create the appliance.

LICN: Is there one case in particular that has really touched you?

JY: Not really any one case in particular. It’s very rewarding, though, when I see these kids when they are just born and then see them throughout their infancy and again when they are toddlers; then I see them when they are 8, 9 years old and treat them until they are 18.

LICN: Is that because they always need braces as a result of the cleft palate?

JY: Yes, braces and a palate extension…well, here in this country. Of course in Guatemala they won’t have that luxury; there are very few orthodontists there. It’s not just that they can’t afford them. Braces need to be adjusted every couple of weeks or months.

LICN: You must have become very close with the people in this mission.

JY: Yes, we were essentially traveling and living with each other for 10 days. Now we stay in touch by e-mail mostly.

LICN: And I’m sure you weren’t staying at a vacation resort…

JY: No. The hospital/clinic is actually run by the nuns, and the nuns have set up like a dormitory for the doctors to stay. Nothing fancy, just dorm rooms. Across the street is the surgery center.

LICN: Who pays for all of this?

JY: The foundation – the Hospital de la Familia Foundation. We collect money, take donations; we bring everything with us, all of our surgical supplies. We brought 26 duffel bags full of stuff with us on the plane.

LICN: How does the Guatemalan government assist or hinder your mission?

JY: Oh, they help us. They make special arrangements for us to get into the country. Then they provide military escorts for us. We have to fly into Guatemala City, and then to get to our destination we take the town road to Progreso, which is about a 5-hour drive. So they put us on a nice air-conditioned bus and we are followed by a contingency of military Humvees behind us.

LICN: So is it pretty dangerous?

JY: Well, I think years ago it was really dangerous, but over the years it’s gotten better. There are two things you have to worry about in Guatemala: one, the rebels want to kidnap you for money, and two, there is a big anti-American sentiment there now in certain parts, because of the whole issue of Americans adopting babies there. Some of the locals don’t appreciate that.

LICN: It must be very different conditions to be operating under down there.

JY: Yes, there is just one big operating room with three operating tables going at once – one for each team. We start first thing in the morning and go until after dinner, sometimes until 10 o’clock at night.

LICN: What is the screening process?

JY: We screen patients the first three mornings we are down there, and by then we have filled up our surgical schedule for the week.

LICN: Do you have to turn people away?

JY: You can’t. These people, they know we are coming; they travel from miles around. Some of have been walking for three to four days to get to us. This year we actually had four tables going at once to accommodate all the surgeries.

LICN: Are there enough recovery rooms?

JY: Well, it’s kind of primitive. But it’s very, very clean.

LICN: How are you received by the people?  Obviously, they appreciate what you are doing for them. You must be heroes!

JY: Yeah, you feel like a rock star! It’s great. Even when you walk down the street, people come up to you and they want to shake your hand and thank you.

LICN: How is your Spanish?  I would think it would be useful to know at least the basics.

JY: Pretty good. I took Spanish in school since I was little. I never used it until now, but I tried to bone up on it as best I could.

LICN: Have any of your daughters expressed any interest in going with you?

JY: No. I think they are probably a little too young, but my wife has said she would love to go. Maybe she can go with me someday in the future.

LICN: They must be proud of you.

JY: They think it’s pretty cool. I think they really appreciate it when one of their teachers hears about it and says something to them. I think it makes them feel proud.

LICN: What are your future plans?  Have you thought of doing this wonderful work in other countries?

JY: Actually, I’ve been invited on a mission to the Philippines but have not been able to attend, and [on] one to Haiti, which I was unable to attend. But I would very much like to go in the future.

LICN: In a lot of these photos of the children they are wearing Colts Neck T-shirts.

JY: I bring lots of stuff with me – T-shirts and clothes for the kids.

LICN: I guess there is so much poverty that they would need everything and anything you can bring, but what you provide is so much more…giving these babies a chance to grow and flourish.

JY: Yes, my team and I…that is our mission.

LICN: This was your first time, but the others have been doing this for a while?

JY: Yes. At least half of the team had been there multiple times so I was definitely one of the newbies.

LICN: Was there anything that surprised you?

JY: Well, obviously, there is just tremendous poverty. But I saw that they had a really big lack of dental hygiene, these kids. That’s really going to be my next focus. This first time, I was really trying to get a feel for the land, but next time I want to go into all the schools and show them how to brush their teeth, how to floss, and how to maintain a healthy mouth, how to eat because a lot of them had dental decay big time. I want to be able to teach them about dental hygiene.

LICN: Have you thought about getting a big corporation to help sponsor you?

JY: I haven’t, but I know now, since I’ve been back, that it can happen. PNC Bank has offered to raise money for us next time. I’ve had so many people come up to me and offer their help or financial support that next time I’ll do more fundraising before I go down.

LICN: Did you have any time to relax and see the country?  There are some beautiful places in Guatemala.

JY: At the end of our mission, we spent a few days of leisure in the colonial village of Antigua. We also hiked through Tikal National Park to explore the ancient Mayan ruins that date back to 550–900 AD. It was truly amazing; we took lots of photos.

LICN: Do you have a motto?

JY: I guess the Nike slogan, “Just Do It!”  Don’t think about it, just get in there and do it. I tell my kids that all the time, like with their homework and projects and stuff – just do it!

LICN: Who are your real-life heroes?

JY: Well, I’ve just been watching that HBO series on John Adams, and I have a new respect for what they went through…George Washington, our founding fathers.

LICN: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

JY: Still living in Colts Neck, still practicing orthodontics, still doing cleft palate work, still going to Guatemala, and still golfing.

LICN: What would you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?

JY: That’s a good question. Probably being a good husband and a good dad. And secondly, being a good orthodontist and a caring person.


Favorite restaurant: El Chilar, San José del Cabo(Los Cabos, Mexico)Favorite music: ’80s rockFavorite movies: The Godfather I and II

Pet peeve: phony people

Three people you’d like to have dinner with: Tiger Woods, Paul Stanley from KISS, and Jon Bon Jovi 

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