Plastic and reconstructive surgeon Paolo Morselli works even harder on his vacations with Interethnos Interplast Italy (3i) than he does in his daily practice at the University of Bologna, Italy teaching hospital. He explains, “We try to do two to three surgical missions per year where we perform 50 to 150 or more surgeries on people who otherwise would have no chance to lead a normal life. The 7,500 patients 3i has helped thus far are children with cleft palates, burn victims, people whose birth defects threaten their survival, and others whose malformations often make them outcasts in their communities. They are among the poorest of the poor in the 19 countries where 3i has volunteered its services.”
Paolo chose this work quite deliberately after struggling as a teenager with many of life’s existential questions. “I constantly wondered ‘Why are we here? What is our purpose?’” he says. “For me, the best answer to those questions was to become a doctor. I realized that for a doctor, there are no boundaries and no differences between people—there is just one purpose: trying to relieve human suffering.” His realization prompted him to enroll in medical school against the advice of his parents, who urged him to pursue a less ambitious path.
In his medical training at universities in Bologna and Milan, Paolo discovered his passion for reconstructive surgery. He loved the obvious and immediate difference he could make for people who had suffered terrible burns or had other physical deformities. He became a skilled surgeon, and in 1981 joined the faculty of the University of Bologna, where he continues work as a surgeon and professor at the University’s St. Orsola Hospital.
Paolo founded 3i in 1988 at the age of 35, after a visiting bishop from Dacca, Bangladesh saw his work to repair a child’s cleft palate and invited him to come help children in Bangladesh. “We only work in places where we have been invited and can establish linkages with doctors and universities in-country,” Paolo says. “My approach to this work is guided by the saying ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.’ My emphasis is on teaching local doctors to perform these surgeries, so they can multiply our efforts.” 3i is affiliated with the international Interplast organization that performs reconstructive surgery, but Paolo added the “Interethnos” to reflect his commitment to being, as he says, “among the people.”
Since its inception, 3i has trained most of the plastic surgeons in Bangladesh, a country where there were none when 3i doctors began visiting in 1988. Paolo has also advocated with the government for better facilities and was successful in getting a 150-bed burn center built, the first of its kind in the country.
On all their missions, primarily targeting Asia and Africa, Paolo ensures that 3i’s patients get the best care available. “I insist on providing the same level of care and using the same materials I would use on my own children,” he says. “The poor don’t deserve any less than I do.” The expert teams of volunteer surgeons, nurses, anesthetists, and support personnel bring everything they need to do surgeries, ensuring that high-quality care is provided at no cost to the patients or host facilities.
Paolo is deeply devoted to honoring the worth of every human being he serves and finds joy in bringing hope and a smile to patients both young and old. He remembers a mission to Lhasa, Tibet: “It was our last day, and we had a full schedule. A couple brought in a tiny child who was found abandoned in a park. She had a cleft palate, and we were her only chance. The team agreed to work until midnight to fit her in the schedule. But instead of making her wait until the end, we put her first. She was our queen for the day.”