Helping the World Smile

Stephanie Cohen-Walsh '87
Stephanie Cohen-Walsh '87

In her senior year of high school, Stephanie Cohen-Walsh ’87 faced a dilemma: go to art school and immerse herself in the creative life, or pursue her other dream and become a doctor.

The best guidance she received came from her art teacher, who, improbably, talked her out of art school by suggesting, almost prophetically, that she could become “an artistic doctor.”

Cohen-Walsh took this advice to heart. After graduating with a major in biology and going to medical school at Georgetown, she became a plastic surgeon, setting up a private practice in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. She also co-founded Operation Kids, a charity that brings free plastic surgery to remote corners of the developing world.

“Though there are plenty of underserved people in the U.S., the places our mission goes to are completely dysfunctional,” says Cohen-Walsh. “There are no services or organizations at all for these people.”

Operation Kids is run through International Surgical Mission Support, an umbrella organization that provides free medical care to people around the world. Since 2008, Cohen-Walsh and Operation Kids have traveled to Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Guatemala, Jamaica and Peru. Ghana is next, in February.

On each trip, Cohen-Walsh joins a 25-person team of specialist surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. Though children take priority, the team also treats adults. Burns and cleft palates are the most common deformities the medical personnel address. They treat trauma and tumors, too.

“Most of these conditions occur just as often in the U.S., but in the U.S. they’re treated immediately,” Cohen-Walsh says. “Patients in some countries don’t have that luxury. No one has ever helped them.”

The countries Operation Kids visits don’t just lack social organization and medical care. They are often riddled with violence and corruption.

During a trip to Jalapa, Guatemala, a gang held Cohen-Walsh’s husband, daughter and nephew hostage at machete point in retaliation for a government takeover of a mine. They were freed after the provincial governor, accompanied by two armored Humvees and a pair of military helicopters, successfully negotiated their release.

Although that kind of danger would unnerve most, Cohen-Walsh remains undeterred. She takes pride in treating hundreds of people during weeklong surgery marathons, or seeing a middle-aged Kenyan man dance with joy before his entire village, smiling for the first time in his life.

“I’m practicing medicine the way it was meant to be practiced,” she says.

— Julian Cardillo ’14