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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Doctor works to treat world’s poor

Dr. Geoff Williams poses for a photograph earlier this month in Boise. Williams is currently on a 10-day trip to Pakistan to perform pediatric facial reconstructive surgery on children in the region. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Tim Woodward Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Geoff Williams could be making a million bucks a year, but he isn’t interested. He drives a 1991 Honda Civic, lives in a modest apartment and travels at his own expense to work for free.

Williams is a plastic surgeon, but don’t expect to see him at a posh clinic. Instead of catering to wealthy patients seeking eternal youth, he treats needy children in poor countries. He travels the world to treat disfigured kids no one else will help.


“Actually, I think I’m being kind of selfish,” the Boise native said. “I get more out of it than my patients do because the work is so rewarding. To see the reaction when a child’s cleft palate or burn is treated, that makes it more than worthwhile.”

Michael Jensen, a physician who accompanied Williams on a medical trip to Kenya last year, struggles to describe him.

“He’s a different kind of person. He’s … well, he’s just a very good person. … To put it plainly, he’s another Mother Teresa.”

A general practitioner in Provo, Utah, Jensen said he has “never heard of a single case in which a physician does what he’s doing. I know people who donate time, maybe once a year for a week or two, but not full time the way Geoff does. He could be making $1 million a year. The popular plastic surgeons I know make up to $2 million. But Geoff has never been financially oriented.”

Williams grew up in Boise, attended Capital High School and studied medicine at the University of Utah, Stanford and the world’s largest craniofacial center in Taiwan. He was studying in Taiwan when he went to Vietnam and India in 1998 and “got addicted to working in those kinds of places,” he said. “There’s such need. You have the feeling that you’re their only hope.”

Since then, Williams has made at least one trip a year to Third World countries. A year ago, he took a leave of absence from his job on the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, to work full time in medically needy countries. He’s been to India, Vietnam, Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, and he left Wednesday for Pakistan after spending New Year’s with his parents, Milton and Bev Williams, in Boise. He pays most of his travel expenses out of his savings.

“Occasionally a charity or someone helps him,” Jensen said, “but other than that he’s financing everything. I’m just a GP, and when I’ve traveled with him, I’ve spent more money than he has. He never stays in fancy hotels, and he lives very modestly. In Galveston, he lives in a kind of student apartment. All he’s interested in is the work.”

The work can be anything from routine surgery for a cleft palate to building a face for a disfigured child. The results are as important to him as they are to the patient.

“One reason I chose plastic surgery is that I like art,” he said.


“Yes. A lot of people who do this don’t have an artistic feel for the shape of the human face. That often comes through in the work.”

In Mexico, he made a nose for a girl who was born without one. She cries for joy whenever she sees him.

In Peru, a family crossed the Andes to have him operate on a child with no ear.

“It’s really touching when people travel two or three days to see you,” he said. “A lot of poor countries have found ways to support life-saving skills, but what you look like isn’t as important. If you have a deformity, they just don’t look at you.”

One of his patients was a teenage girl born without an upper lip.

“She went everywhere with her hand over her mouth. She thought it was untreatable. She thought she’d spend the rest of her life with her hand over her mouth.”

In Vietnam, a patient’s mother wept so uncontrollably after her daughter’s cleft-palate surgery that he thought something was wrong.

“I thought maybe she didn’t like the result, but that wasn’t it,” he said. “They’re just so destitute in some of those countries that she thought that it was impossible to fix. She thought nothing could ever be done.

“… I think the moms are more my patients than the kids are. There’s something about a mother of a disfigured child. They’ve spent years thinking it’s hopeless and then it’s fixed. It’s a wonderful feeling to relieve their anxiety.”

Williams doesn’t keep a running count of his patients, but says they’d number in the hundreds. When word got out that an American doctor who could operate on burns and cleft palates was coming to Vietnam last month, more than 100 people were waiting for him.

His patients are poor, but not ungrateful.

“Word has gotten out in Vietnam that I like mangos,” he said with a sudden smile. “The last time I was there, I got several hundred of them. So I guess I have been paid.”

Doctors and patients alike benefit from Williams’ visits. He teaches the local physicians American surgical techniques and invites them to assist when he operates.

“A doctor I work with in Vietnam has just started doing her own cleft-palate surgeries. Some of them look better than mine.”

The training needed to become a plastic surgeon is all but unattainable in many countries. The Vietnamese doctor with the new skills isn’t a plastic surgeon. She’s a dentist.

“When you can teach the local people to do the work, you’re not just treating the patient,” Williams said. “You’re solving the problem.”

He’s the first to correct those who call him a miracle worker.

“It’s not miracles. It’s just a lot of hard work.”

Jensen said:

“A lot of doctors who take these trips go with the idea they’ll also take a vacation. He doesn’t think that way. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with him. I assisted him on a surgery in Kenya that lasted nine hours, and he never took a break. He didn’t eat; he didn’t even go to the restroom.”

His father sees one drawback:

“He works so hard and is on the go so much he’s never had time to get married.”

Williams, who is 49, says he hasn’t given up on the idea of marrying and settling down. But it isn’t likely to happen soon. In December, he resigned his post at the University of Texas to continue his medical missions long-term. He’s working with attorneys in San Antonio to set up a foundation for support after his savings are gone.

His selflessness is something of an enigma, even to those closest to him.

“There were no signs of it when he was growing up,” his mother said. “I think it was just inborn and surfaced after he became a doctor. He seems to get great joy out of working with poverty-stricken people that everyone else casts off.”