Islander helps Nicaraguan patients

For more than 20 years, Dr. John Dann has donated his time and expertise to helping the residents of Nicaragua.

“Volcanoes, mudslides. If anything bad can happen, it happens there twice,” said Dann. “They’ve been beat up, chewed up and spit out by different governments. [But] they are generally warmhearted people.”

Dann is a doctor of dental surgery and a medical doctor who founded the nonprofit organization MPO (Maxillofacial, Plastics and Orthodontics) USA and is a resident of Orcas Island. MPO USA is an organization Dann created to be able to provide reconstructive surgery to people in Nicaragua who have craniofacial deformities. He has collected surgeons, orthodontists, anesthesiologists and nurses from all over the U.S. who donate their time and money to operate on patients at no cost. Any money donated to the organization goes to medications and medical supplies, and the doctors take zero payment for their services.

In September 2016, Dann was recognized by the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons for his many years of service to the people of Nicaragua by being granted the “Humanitarian Award.” The award is given to oral and maxillofacial surgeons who donate “substantial time and effort” toward improving people’s quality of life.

“They’re lovely people,” said Dann. “I’m glad to be able to help.”

Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Dann’s father was a dentist, so he decided to become one too. He started his medical and dental education at Harvard, where he went for three years until he went into residency.

After leaving Harvard with a dental degree in 1975, Dann did a year fellowship at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, before returning to St. Louis to attend Washington University to finish out his medical studies. He was only 30 years old when he completed his training.

“Then I did fellowships in craniofacial fellowships in London, Paris and Zurich,” said Dann. “And then the Air Force got me.”

As an oral maxillofacial surgeon with craniofacial training, Dann operates on the bones of the skull and the face as well as any related orthodontic alterations, fixing such conditions as cleft palate. Craniofacial surgery is a specialty within plastic surgery that corrects congenital and acquired deformities of the skull, face, neck and jaw.

Dann ran a residency teaching young surgeons at Travis Air Force Base in California. He says a lot of what he learned he took for granted; he soon discovered that many of the maxillofacial reconstructive surgeries he was taught were just being developed. When Dann left the Air Force, he was one of the first surgeons to be performing such procedures in the state of California.

For five years, Dann was the first surgical director for The Center for the Correction of Dental Facial Deformities before he opened a private practice. He finished out his professional career until retirement, working and training resident students from the University of California – San Francisco and University Pacific.

“You’re always able to learn and figure out how to do it better next time,” said Dann. “It’s a delight; it means you have a lifetime of learning ahead of you.”

Dann took his first trip to the South American nation more than two decades ago after a colleague Dr. Michael Carstens told him the country “needed him.” Carstens originally approached Dann with the desire to learn from him. He had gone to Nicaragua for five years with the World Health Organization and eventually established the nation’s first plastic surgery residency.

Dann said most of the surgeries he does in Nicaragua are taking the bones of the face and reorganizing them into their correct positions. His first patient had a rare congenital defect called Goldenhar syndrome, which meant his face was shaped like a comma. After that one operation, Dann said he was “hooked.”

Soon after, he founded MPO USA, which offers reconstructive free of charge to those in need. Sometimes his patients would require operations so detailed that MPO would fly the patient and a family member to the U.S. Dann formed a relationship with Hispanic communities in California so that patients had a host family to stay with during their recovery.

“We had one kid come in, and he must have had something that looked like a lunch pail that was his and his mother’s suitcase,” said Dann. “The Hispanic community bought clothing for them. They ended up going home with excess baggage and a scholarship for the university.”

During his 20 years of traveling to Nicaragua two to three times a year, Dann estimates he’s performed more than 400 surgeries in the country. He said one time – unbeknownst to the medical team – they operated on a young man whose father was very influential in the country. After the surgery, the man purchased a part of the hospital, renovated and turned it into the Dr. John Dann Maxillofacial Surgical Clinic.

“You go down with certain American expectations of linear progress,” said Dann. “Then you learn that the way the Nicaraguans work, it’s three steps forward, two steps to the side, two steps back and we’ll see you in about four to six months.”

Dann and his wife moved to Orcas five years ago. His wife Jill teaches tennis at Buck Park for Orcas Island Park and Recreation and he has three adult sons. Over the years, he has taken the entire family with him to Nicaragua. They have two dogs, Bella, a street dog from Mexico, and a six-month-old German Shepherd puppy named Kodi.

The Louisiana State University will be taking over MPO USA this spring, and Dann will return to Nicaragua to accompany the next generation of doctors who will carry on his legacy. But that does not mean that Dann is done traveling to the country.

“I’ll probably go down there and eat and drink with those people until I’m ready to be buried,” said Dann. “The food is great; the people are good.”