Birzeit University and United Palestinian Appeal partner to strengthen medical support and infrastructure for Cleft Palate

The University is excited for its Faculty of Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Professions to be working closely with the United Palestinian Appeal (UPA) on its program, Embracing Life. The Embracing Life Program serves to expand the capacity of the Palestinian medical sector, and to provide local clinics for families during treatment and subsequent check-ups.

UPA’s Embracing Life Program empowers Palestinian medical personnel in providing surgery and comprehensive care for patients with cleft lip and/or cleft palate and other craniofacial anomalies, and to transfer their knowledge locally to facilitate an infrastructure of medical support post-surgery.

The university’s attendance in the medical conference, “Improving Speech Outcomes in Patients with Clefts: The Essentials of Team Care”, (in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and Smile Train Charity), heard lectures from Birzeit University professionals in the field such as Amal Abu Kteish.

Birzeit’s Advancement Department spoke to the Program Manager of the Embracing Life Program, Dana Awwad, to shed light on this invaluable program.

Advancement Department (AD): How has the Embracing Life program grown/changed since its inception in 2014?

Dana Awwad (DA): The Embracing Life Program (ELP) is the archetype for independent craniofacial care in the Middle East. Since the inception of the ELP in 2014, UPA has been expanding and establishing professional training programs across the occupied Palestinian territories, providing Palestinian medical professionals with new equipment and facilities, and forging new partnerships to empower the local medical community to provide self-sufficient and comprehensive care for patients with cleft lip and/or cleft palate (CLP).

Today there are four local Palestinian surgeons who are able to perform cleft surgeries independently (without the presence of a trainer) across the West Bank, two of whom are able to train other surgeons. We are proud to share that these surgeons are currently carrying out monthly local delegations in Palestine Medical Complex (PMC), meaning that all team members providing care for CLP patients are local Palestinians. In addition to surgery, craniofacial care includes many disciplines such as nutrition, speech and language pathology, dentistry, and orthodontics. Thus, in 2016, a feeding specialist joined the team who will eventually train other local professionals how to feed CLP infants. In 2017, we started training 20 speech and language pathologists and 9 dentists from across the West Bank how to care for patients with CLP.

Finally, UPA through the ELP provides the team with facilities and equipment in order to perform these trainings and to provide the care. In 2016, we celebrated the opening of two equipped operating rooms at PMC dedicated to the goals of the ELP. Furthermore, UPA has built new partnerships in Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon to transfer the knowledge of the ELP team and its model to these areas.

AD: What does the selection process look like for patients in need? Is it available for anyone with a need to apply, or are there specific requirements?

DA: There are no specific requirements for providing care for patients. The ELP team will screen and diagnose patients who have craniofacial anomalies, specifically, cleft lip and/or cleft palate and will draw a plan for their treatment.

AD: How many doctors were involved and how many surgeries were performed this past Delegation? 

DA: Six local surgeons were involved in this past delegation in addition to Dr. John van Aalst who is the ELP Director and the founder of craniofacial care training in the occupied Palestinian territories. During patients’ screening there were two speech and language pathology experts from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, USA who evaluated patients for speech impediments and trained local therapists. In addition, Dr. Vilma Arteaga, an orthodontist and orthopedist from Guatemala, visited with CLP infants to train local dentists and orthodontists how to provide pre-surgical orthodontic treatment to achieve optimal surgical results. ELP surgeons performed 44 surgeries and screened 173 patients in the April 2017 Delegation

AD: After patients receive surgery, are there ways they can access check-up services? Can the Palestinian medical sector provide patients with post-surgery check-ins once the doctors have left? If not, what is the infrastructure (either availability of doctors, access to medical equipment, etc.) needed to provide post-surgery care?

DA: The mission of the ELP is to empower Palestinian medical personnel to provide self-sufficient and comprehensive care for patients with CLP and other craniofacial anomalies. Thus, we aim to create local Palestinian craniofacial team that patients can refer to before and after surgery. Currently, there are four surgeons across the West Bank who are able to screen, diagnose and perform surgeries for patients with CLP. These surgeons have already become a reference for families and well known in their community. In addition, these surgeons are carrying our local surgical delegations on monthly basis to care for patients with CLP, noting that all team members are locals. In addition, our feeding specialist who resides in the West Bank is trained to train mothers of CLP infants how to feed and nourish their babies. We are following the same model to provide families in the West Bank with local speech and language pathologists, dentists and orthodontists to refer to.