Noordhoff puts expertise to use helping children

June 8, 2012
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Every two years, the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons honors physicians who have made the most significant contributions to plastic surgery during their careers, delivering the prestigious Sir Harold Gilles Lecture Award at its annual meeting.

Grand Rapids plastic surgeon Dr. M. Samuel Noordhoff was selected for this year’s award.

A Hope College graduate, Noordhoff, 84, began his career at Butterworth Hospital, where he received his training in both general and plastic surgery. When a mentor at Butterworth informed him of an opportunity to serve as a missionary doctor in Taiwan, Noordhoff went home and spoke to his wife, Lucille.

“We decided there was no good reason for saying no. And that’s how we got to Taiwan,” said Noordhoff. The young couple and their three small children boarded a freighter for the 28-day journey across the ocean.

When he arrived at Mackay Memorial Hospital, Noordhoff was greeted by an institution with a lot of needs. The hospital was in poor financial condition and many of the nurses and physicians did not have adequate training. Noordhoff was charged with performing many of the most demanding surgeries, asked to oversee the budget, and eventually serve as president of the hospital.

Through the chaos of the first five years, there was one person Noordhoff could count on. “God has given me unusual people to work with, and Kimma Chang is one of them,” he said.

Chang came from a family of fishermen and had received a degree in business administration. The hospital board of directors wouldn’t allow Noordhoff to hire Chang, so instead he brought him on as a personal secretary, paying him out of his own pocket.

In the mid-1960s, Noordhoff sent Chang to the University of Michigan, where he received a degree in hospital administration. During this time, Noordhoff returned to Grand Rapids to complete his plastic surgery training at Butterworth, making him the first physician to receive a residency in plastic surgery from the hospital.

M. Samuel Noordhoff, M.D.

Organization: Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation
Position: Founder
Age: 84
Birthplace: Orange City, Iowa
Residence: Grand Rapids and Naples, Fla.
Family: Grown children Nancy Lamberts, Sam Noordhoff, Anne Lin and Dirck Noordhoff.
Community/Professional Involvement: Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation, Smile Train, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, American Association of Plastic Surgeons.
Biggest Career Break: Deciding to go to Taiwan to be a missionary doctor.

When Chang and Noordhoff returned to Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taiwan, they began to be more proactive in their efforts to revitalize the hospital.

“We were like a team. We went back and we started changing everything,” he said. The pair began a new burn unit and an intensive-care unit and implemented several other special programs. Noordhoff, who has always believed strongly in education, began sending doctors from the hospital to work with the most accomplished physicians from around the world for specialized training. The doctors would return, bringing with them knowledge of the most progressive techniques in existence at the time.

After 17 years at Mackay Memorial Hospital, both Noordhoff and Chang took the next step in their careers. Chang went on to start the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, and Noordhoff became the first superintendent there, developing the plastic surgery division.

From the time Noordhoff arrived in Taiwan, the treatment of cleft-lip children was a special concern of his.

“After a while, I realized that we needed to have an organization to help with the rehabilitation of the cleft-lip child,” he said.

In 1989, he founded the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing care, sponsoring medical research, and improving public awareness and social acceptance for individuals with craniofacial deformity.

Noordhoff made the initial donation of $100,000 to begin the foundation. “I decided that if I was going to ask other people to support it, I needed to first support it myself,” he said.

The foundation started from humble beginnings. The first speech pathologist was a woman who taught Chinese to foreigners, hired for her keen ear. But from day one, Noordhoff had a greater vision for NCF.

He explained that craniofacial deformity treatment “isn’t just one little operation. It involves a whole team of people working together to rehabilitate a child — not just physically, but socially and mentally. From the beginning, I started out with the idea of developing this kind of cranial facial team.”

The team at NCF was at the forefront of comprehensive care, an approach that was extremely progressive at the time. Noordhoff recognized early on the significance of treating not only a patient’s physical ailments but the whole person.

Though many of the patients came from impoverished homes, Noordhoff had a special place in his heart for orphans, whom he always treated at no cost.

One such patient was referred to NCF when he was found selling brooms on the street. Beyond performing multiple surgeries on the young boy, Noordhoff and the foundation followed up to make sure he was adjusting well in society. Upon finding that the boy’s father was pulling him out of school to send him to work, the foundation offered the boy a place to stay in the hospital so that he could finish his education. The boy went on to become president of his class.

Noordhoff noted that the physical problems can sometimes overshadow the emotional and social toll craniofacial deformity takes on an individual. When it was suggested that young cleft-lip patients be separated into their own playroom because some of them could not speak, Noordhoff insisted on finding another way. The foundation hired social workers to work with the children, and soon they were able to communicate normally.

Creating public awareness and acceptance for children with cleft lips is another major focus of the foundation. One year, the foundation placed an ad in the paper asking children to write stories about someone with a deformity. The ad elicited such positive response that it is now a yearly competition, with some of the winners being cleft-lip patients themselves.

One such story centered around a character named Little Bull, who was ashamed of a bull’s-eye on his forehead. Little Bull’s family responded by painting bull’s-eyes on their faces, but they would always wash away. The protagonist eventually becomes a talented singer, giving him a sense of pride.

“Our foundation has had a significant social impact in Taiwan,” said Noordhoff.

NCF now has a budget of nearly $1 million annually, and Noordhoff’s “Love Makes Whole” team has traveled to 11 countries and completed 56 cleft-lip missions serving Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Cambodia, the Philippines, China, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, Laos, Indonesia and Mongolia.

The foundation is now transitioning into a teaching role, hosting physicians from all over the world who come to study. The most recent seminar brought more than 280 doctors from 30 countries to take part in a workshop on craniofacial surgery.

Noordhoff has led a life dedicated to people. His legacy includes establishing Taiwan’s first polio rehabilitation center, suicide prevention center, burn center, ICU and craniofacial treatment center. The technique he developed for unilateral cleft-lip repair is recognized as the most effective way of preventing the most common complication to the procedure, an unsightly notch on the lip.

By sharing his knowledge and through his own surgeries, Noordhoff’s medical expertise has transformed thousands of lives. Despite his many personal achievements, he is resolute in giving the credit to his team.

“We’ve been able to accomplish many wonderful things together.”

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