Photo courtesy of the Robinson Foundation.
0412 Robinson Foundation Caring for Coyles
Dr. Gordon Robinson, Carrie Wilder and Mallie Ireland of Mountain Brook pose with a patient outside the Honduras Clinic.
Dr. Gordon Robinson tries to stifle his smile as he describes what he was looking for on his first mission trip to Coyoles, Honduras, in 1979.
“Honestly, I was looking for a place where I could do reconstructive surgery in the morning and relax on the beach in the afternoon,” he said of the Christian Medical Society trip. “But over the course of our ten day trip, I only did three or four surgeries.”
That was too much time on the beach and not enough in the operating room for Robinson, who realized that if he and his wife, Kitty, returned on their own, he would be able to make a much greater contribution to the people of Coyoles.
Well, be careful what you wish for.
On his thirty-second trip to Coyoles this past September, Robinson and his team performed more than 250 surgeries in 10 days, and he didn’t even set foot on the beach.
“We are going full steam the entire time we are there, but that’s what I love about it,” he said. “When Kitty and I first decided to seek out a spot to do medical missions in the Caribbean, we were definitely looking for a more romantic destination. But as we took the time to explore different locations, we kept ending up in the little, muddy town of Coyoles. Sometimes you just have to bloom where you are planted.”
Robinson graduated from the University of Alabama’s Medical School, and after a residency and fellowship at the University of Mississippi, he started practicing plastic and reconstructive surgery in Birmingham. He also ran the cleft palate clinic at Children’s Hospital for 20 years.
Kitty Robinson feels that the intense suffering her husband saw in his time at Children’s inspired him to look for a way to help children in third-world countries early in his career.
“You just can’t come face to face with such heartbreak on a daily basis and walk away unchanged,” she said.
Robinson established The Robinson Foundation in 1981 to begin fulfilling his vision of providing plastic and reconstructive surgery to the people of Coyoles. Over the last 30 years, he and his team have performed more than 4,000 surgeries, primarily on children.
“The first time Kitty and I went, it was just the two of us,” he said. “On our trip this past September, we had a team of 14 individuals, which included doctors, nurses, pilots and a host of others.”
Unlike the small community hospital that existed then, the people of Coyoles now have two state-of-the-art operating rooms in addition to a new recovery room in a new hospital wing the Robinsons had built 15 years ago.
Their teams often see up to 250 people on the first day of a trip. They determine who needs a simple fix like antibiotics, and then schedule the surgeries that they will perform over their 10-day stay.
Robinson is able to help patients with a wide range of issues but most commonly operates on cleft lips and palates, tendon injuries due to the prevalence of machetes, hand and foot deformities, and burn injuries. Occasionally, the Robinson Foundation is able to arrange travel to the United States for patients with severe surgical needs unable to be met in Honduras.
Even the patients they are unable to treat leave the clinic with a gift of some sort. Kitty Robinson arrives with a wealth of goodies, including toothpaste, deodorant, stuffed animals and balls.
“Over 75 percent of our patients are children,” Kitty said, “and most of them have never even had a stuffed animal. They truly treasure the toys we are able to bring them from home.”
It’s not just toys and medical supplies that Kitty stuffs in her suitcase. Kitty recalls one little girl who had been badly burned on her scalp and had very little hair on her head. She approached the Robinsons about what would have been a fairly intensive reconstructive surgery but decided to live with the scars once she heard the details of the surgery.
“The next time we went to Honduras, I tucked a wig in my carry-on bag,” Kitty said with a smile. “She was thrilled with how she looked with a head full of hair. Sometimes it’s the small things.”
Gordon Robinson jokes that Kitty knows everyone in four states who will give her anything for free. All year she dedicates time to soliciting donations of sheets, pillows, generators, hospital beds, light bulbs and anything else they need to keep the operating and recovery rooms up and running while they are in Coyoles. The Robinson’s basement is currently storing 2,000 sets of sheets that Kitty bought for $300. The sheets were U.S. government surplus after Hurricane Katrina.
But with all the Robinsons have been able to do for the people of Honduras, Gordon is quick to point out that they are there as guests of the local people.
“Nothing would be possible without their support,” he said. “We are also grateful for the local doctors who provide follow-up care to our patients once we leave.”
Kitty and Gordon Robinson genuinely feel that they, not the patients of Coyoles’ tiny hospital, have received the greatest gift of all, friendship and love from the people of Honduras.
“They have definitely had more of an impact on us than we have had on them,” Kitty said. “It is our privilege to be there, and we look forward to seeing many old friends each time we return.”
For more information on the Robinson Family Foundation, visit www.therobinsonfoundation.com or call 967-0603.