Galapagos Island native Galo Del Heirro didn’t think much of the mole that had been growing in size around his right eyelid over the last year.
That was until doctors from Stony Brook Medicine visited his homeland in March for a skin cancer mission.
Del Hierro was one of nearly 400 people who was given medical attention through a medical trip sponsored by Long Island non-profit Blanca’s House, which funds medical care to places throughout Latin America.
Stony Brook’s seven-person medical team gave skin cancer screenings and healthcare lectures to the local residents.
The Galapagos was chosen because of its close proximity to the equator, plus there are no full-time dermatologists that live on the island inhabited by nearly 25,000 people, said Stony Brook reconstructive plastic surgeon Dr. Alexander Dagum.
“When people have anything suspicious they have to go all the way to the mainland, which is quite far, like 700 miles, to have something analyzed or biopsied,” he said.
Of the hundreds to immediately seek medical attention, Del Heirro wasn’t one of them.
However, since one of the lectures was at his workplace—the Darwin Foundation— he figured he’d ask Dagum about the lesion near his eye.
“[Galo] came up to me and said, “I am too busy to do a screening, but I have this spot that has gotten larger for some time,” Dagum explained to GreaterPortJeff.
After a quick examination, the human resources counselor was directed to go get a screening. After a biopsy was performed by Stony Brook dermatopathologist, Dr. Daniel Lozeau, it was concluded that the 44-year-old had melanoma, a malignant form of skin cancer.
“I was really worried,” said Del Heirro, who first noticed the spot at 18 years old. “I just kept thinking about my family.”
Since the cancer was close to his eye, it made it difficult to find a local doctor to perform the rare surgery.
“On the eyelid, you have less room to work with,” said Dagum. “It not like when it’s on someone’s back, where we have a lot more real estate [to work with].”
Time was of the essence, if not treated soon, the mass could rapidly grow causing blindness while metastasizing and spreading to other parts of the body, said Dagum and Lozeau.
Dagum received clearance to perform the surgery as a teaching case at Stony Brook.
This May, Del Heirro was flown to Long Island where Stony Brook doctors and nurses worked pro bono to reconstruct his eyelid. They removed most of the bottom eyelid, then used the upper eyelid to re-create it with skin grafts.
“The goal is to protect the eye,” said Lozeau. “If you don’t have an eyelid you’ll get coronal erosion, causing blindness.”
With the surgery complete, Dagum expects Del Hierro to make a full recovery after a few months of swelling. He is recommended to get regularly checked up from now on.
“Thank you for everything you did for my family,” Del Heirro’s wife told the Stony Brook doctors while she choked back tears.
Dagum, who travels the world to provide treatment, points out that even those with darker complexions like Del Heirro are still prone to skin cancers.
“I have removed skin cancer cells from Sub-Sahara Africa, China, in South America,” he said. “You’re protected if you are darker skin but you are not immune.”
Below are some tips about skin protection from the Stony Brook Dermatology team.
- Schedule skin checkups every six months.
- Be on the lookout for any birthmark, bump, or lesion that is irregularly shaped, grown over time, multiple colors, or bleeds on contact.
- Get checked if a pimple hasn’t gone away after six months.
- The Academy of Dermatology recommends using 30 SPF sunscreens or higher. Make sure to re-apply every few hours, especially if you’re sweating or swimming.
- It’s important to protect sensitive areas of the body, such as eyes and lips because they damage easily.
For more skincare health information, click here.
Scroll down to see photos from the trip. (Courtesy of Stony Brook Medicine)