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Sunday, April 16, 2000

Plastic surgeon honored with Jefferson Award

Doctor performs operations for free to correct cleft palates, lips in developing countries

By Dan Parker
Caller-Times

Caller-Times file
Dr. Chili Robinson was chosen to receive the 2000 Jefferson Volunteer Award for his work with children and adults in developing countries. He provides them with free operations to correct cleft palates and lips.
Like an angel of mercy, Chili Robinson flies to foreign nations and performs free surgeries that change impoverished people's lives.
   Robinson, a 57-year-old Corpus Christi plastic surgeon, donates one to two weeks of his time each year to perform cleft palate and cleft lip operations on people in countries such as El Salvador, Mexico and Peru. He estimates that since 1991 he has corrected facial disfigurements on about 200 children and adults in foreign countries.
   "It's real rewarding, because I get to use my talents in a creative way in an environment that's not real legalistic and lawsuit happy, and I get to make a difference in people's lives," Robinson said.
   "These kids, especially the ones with a cleft lip, it's pretty disgusting-looking, and in many areas they are shunned," Robinson said. "And in areas where they are accepted, they are still considered grotesque."
   Robinson recalled performing surgery in Chiapas, Mexico, on a 20-year-old man who told the doctor he could not have found a woman who would marry him if he hadn't had the operation.
   "That's a great feeling to know you've affected someone in a positive way," Robinson said.
   Robinson was selected Friday for the top honor in the Caller-Times/Channel 6 Jefferson Awards program. He was among 10 medallion winners and 40 honorees who were recognized through the program
   He is now automatically one of the nationwide candidates for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities. Five people will be selected for that award during a gala June 12-14 in Washington, D.C. The gala is to be hosted by the American Institute for Public Service.
   "I hope I can live up to the honor," Robinson said after receiving the local award on Friday with his 14-year-old daughter, Kendall, by his side.
   Robinson has worked with Austin Smiles, an organization that provides free cleft palate and lip surgeries in in Latin America. Volunteers pay their own way.
   Robinson also spent two weeks in the Ukraine in 1998, teaching surgeons how to repair cleft lips and palates.
David Pellerin/Caller-Times
Dr. Chili Robinson stands after hearing that he will be representing South Texas in Washington, D.C., for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities.

   In addition, Robinson has volunteered at a clinic for children with cleft lips and palates at Driscoll Children's Hospital.
   Robinson grew up in Austin and got his medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio in 1975.
   In 1962, he traveled in Central America, where he spent time at a mission where he was inspired by the work of an agronomist, Robinson said.
   "He was teaching the people how to improve their quality of life, teaching simple things, how to grow crops in simple ways," Robinson said. "His talent lay in agronomy. When I got through with my training as a plastic surgeon, the way I could help people best was using my plastic surgery. It was a matter of taking things at hand and improving people's lives."
   Cleft lips and palates are the most common facial birth defects that go without repair in developing countries, so Robinson has spent all of his trips fixing the deformities.
   A cleft palate is a birth defect in which there is a split in the roof of the mouth. Many people born with a cleft palate also have a cleft lip - a split through the upper lip.
   In the United States, most infants born with the defects have corrective surgery immediately, with insurance or Medicaid paying the bill. But most people in developing countries never have the surgery.
   Robinson has underwritten his charitable work with cosmetic surgery, much of it performed in his Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Institute, 3765 S. Alameda St.
   Robinson said his dream is to close his local practice and travel the world, helping disfigured people who can't afford a plastic surgeon.
   Not many people can do the kind of volunteer work Robinson does, said Patrick Beckham, a plastic surgeon and co-founder of Austin Smiles.
   "In the whole spectrum of the volunteer world, it is a select group of people who can do cleft lip surgery," Beckham said. "There are not a lot of people who can make a contribution in that particular field, so it is wonderful when someone who can do that is also interested in doing that."
   Robinson's work is wonderful humanitarianism, said Virgil Conard, a semi-retired businessman who nominated Robinson for the Jefferson Award.
   "I think it's marvelous, because he takes people that, you know, they're sort of disfigured, facially in particular, and makes them feel proud of themselves, and they look normal," said Conard, of Corpus Christi. "He just greatly improves their outlook on life."
   Robinson's work also contributes toward better relations between the United States and other countries, Conard said.
   "Anything like this gives people in other countries a better view of Americans," Conard said. "That's one of the byproducts, is that for them to see us in a good light."
  
  




Staff writer Dan Parker can be reached at 886-3774 or by e-mail at parkerd@caller.com

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