International smiles: Edina plastic surgeon has been doing mission trips for 33 years

Dr. Joseph Gryskiewicz performs a surgery during his 2016 Peru mission trip. (Submitted photo)
Dr. Joseph Gryskiewicz performs a surgery during his 2016 Peru mission trip. (Submitted photo)
For a third of a century, ‘Dr. G’ has been putting smiles on faces around the world.

Dr. Joseph Gryskiewicz, owner of Gryskiewicz Twin Cities Cosmetic Surgery in Edina and Burnsville, is a man of many titles: former president of the Minnesota board of plastic surgeons, Aesthetic Society Education & Research Foundation, and Rhinoplasty Society & Minnesota Society of Plastic Surgeon, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

For the past 33 years, he has performed surgeries on children and adults suffering from cleft lips and palates during mission trips focused mostly on central and South America.

While he has almost exclusively traveled to Peru for the past 17 years, his drive for service began after a trip to Guatemala while he was in college.
“A priest came and gave a talk, and he went through his mission down in Guatemala,” Gryskiewicz said. “He invited people to see the mission if they wanted to.”

Gryskiewicz agreed to visit and set off to Guatemala, unaware that his career path was about to change. He was greeted by the fact that in the mountain town he visited, 60 percent of children died before reaching age 5. He wanted to do something, but he was still a
psychology major.

“So I really felt this urge to go back and help. And a psych major?” Gryskiewicz said. “What are you going to tell a mother whose kid has just died, ‘Oh you look depressed today, Mrs. Sanchez.’ So I went and changed into nursing.”

He lived in Guatemala for six months, working in a clinic every day, bringing all of his equipment up to a mountain clinic at night.
“In the mountains is where I saw a ton of kids with cleft lips and cleft palates,” Gryskiewicz said. “‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

To Peru
Gryskiewicz isn’t the only doctor with the heart to help.

Jo Barta is chief resident in the University of Minnesota plastic surgery training program. She will graduate in five months, but will spend an additional year training in Seattle. Well on her way to following Gryskiewicz’s mission path, Barta has done the same type of trips in Guatemala, the Philippines and now Peru.

Dr. G laughs with an inquisitive patient. (Submitted photo)
Dr. G laughs with an inquisitive patient. (Submitted photo)

The Peru trips are organized through Programma San Francisco De Asis, a volunteer program created by Dr. Frank Pilney in St. Paul.
One in 750 kids on average have a cleft lip or palate, and while there are children in need in the United States, Banta and Gryskiewicz feel like their skills are useful abroad.

Cleft lips and palates are also more prevalent in other countries and other races.

“At least two to three times as high,” Barta said, explaining that Asians and the ancestors of those who crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago – now indigenous in the Americas – are those who have a higher incidence rate.

“In our last trip … at least 150 kids lined up for us,” Barta said. “The numbers are there, definitely.”

“Plus, it is our skill,” Gryskiewicz added. “It is what we can do to really help down there. I think that is the difference.”

The average mission trip lasts one to two weeks, although the caseload is typically so high, Gryskiewicz said they could often stay longer.
“We just operate our brains out all day,” Gryskiewicz said. “Then we go home, eat some Peruvian food, get diarrhea, and then operate the next day. You just take pepto bismol and keep going.”

The problems in less-developed countries vary from lack of medical resources to distance that can prohibit access to finding help for medical needs.

“There was a 36-year-old woman in Peru who had never seen a doctor for that,” Gryskiewicz said. “And if they don’t have money, some doctors don’t want to work for free.”

Due to the varying cultures, adults who have cleft issues end up being shunned.

“They become outcasts,” Barta said. “Some are homeless, or have very menial jobs in society. We did a cleft lip on a guy who was 45 years old – a street vendor who was kicked out of his tribe – and it was life changing.”

As they go to different towns and regions throughout the world, the hospital conditions can vary.

In their most recent trip to Peru, Barta and Gryskiewicz were in a hospital with adequate resources and paying patients, but in some clinics they attend there is nothing. Equipment has to be shipped down from the United States or donated.

In Ecuador, Gryskiewicz faced conditions including no water for scrubbing in, flies in the operating room or times when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the operating room.

One of the worst situations was operating in a clinic where the power would shut on and off
periodically throughout the day.

“So now you are in the back of a kid’s throat, no lights. The nurses are holding flashlights so I can finish a case,” Gryskiewicz said. “That is dicey.”

The team and planning that goes into the 49 other weeks of the year sets them up for successful surgeries and the maximum caseload for making a difference.

This year, 30 support staff, surgeons and anesthesiologists went to Peru – and they paid their own way.

“They have a vested interest to be there,” Barta said. “No one is paying them to be on a vacation. Everyone is there to work hard, help each other out. It is always amazing how well people work together who haven’t worked together before during those weeks to get the work done.”

But the effort it takes patients to get treated sometimes is an even greater journey. Some patients travel upwards of 40 hours on buses or through the mountains to get surgery.

“I want to do it,” Gryskiewicz said. “I couldn’t live without it. It is too good for the soul.”

Gryskiewicz told a story about one mother who brought in a baby, both of which had cleft lips. When they tried to get her treated, she refused, saying that she came for her baby.

“We went back and forth, and finally I said, ‘Look, if you want us to do the kid, I’m going to do you too,’” Gryskiewicz said.

She finally gave in, and two surgeries and two hours later, their family was changed forever.

“When that women and her daughter looked at themselves in the mirror. They just started crying. They just wept,” Gryskiewicz said. “It was so moving. What is a better kick than that?”

And back again
Gryskiewicz fights the cliche in America that all plastic surgeons are money grubbers.

While he performs some cleft surgeries at the University of Minnesota, most of his Burnsville and Edina work are cosmetic, which is a recipe for culture shock.

“It gets softer as time goes on, but culture shock is really big for some people,” Gryskiewicz said. “That was very difficult for me, coming from Guatemala the first time. Now I am getting more used to it.”

But the disparity between work in the first world and the third still gets him every time he returns.

“It is hard to hear people complain about little things that are barely discernible, and then you do something like [cleft surgery] to a 34-year-old women,” Gryskiewicz said. “It is always the first patient I see after I come back – it never fails.”

But he aims to serve all of his patients through listening and acting for his patients to find beauty, however they choose to define it.
For now, Gryskiewicz deflects the question of when he will retire.

“I hope to die with my boots on.”