Pictured Above: Marilyn Diaz (middle), seated just like Einstein, in the library with fellow CHATs at the Mt. Wilson Observatory

Special thanks author/interviewer Gloria Mullendore and the Caltech Women’s Club for the wonderful article.

Marilyn in Jalalabad, Bangladesh with her Rotary Assistant, Tahmid (below).

For Women’s History Month we are profiling Los Angeles native, Marilyn Diaz. Marilyn had a decades long career in law enforcement where she confronted and overcame gender barriers. She served 32 years with the Pasadena Police Department retiring as a commander. Marilyn then served five years as chief of Sierra Madre Police Department where she was the first woman police chief in Los Angeles County. Marilyn’s career and its significance has been widely documented including at the Huntington Library.

Marilyn’s association with Rotary International began in 2003 with the Rotary Club of Pasadena and continued with Rotary Club of Sierra Madre. Rotary was a male-only service club until the Rotary Club of Duarte admitted women in 1977. Rotary International removed this local club so the club challenged this action and bias in 1983 in California Superior Court. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1987 to finally end gender bias, not only in Rotary, but in male-only service clubs throughout the U.S. Marilyn served twice as President of Rotary Club of Sierra Madre, three years as Rotary International District 5300 Assistant Governor and one year as Executive Assistant Governor. She has twice participated in Rotary Club humanitarian and cultural missions to India and just returned from a medical mission which helped deliver reconstructive surgery to children with cleft lips, burn scars and other deformities. Marilyn has served on the boards of Boy Scouts of America, Pacific Clinics, The British Home, and Women at Work. She joined the CWC in 2012 and is an active CHATS (Caltech’s History & Architectural Tour Service) docent. Following is an account of her medical mission to Bangladesh which is the embodiment of Rotary Club’s motto, “service above self.”

Rotaplast team group photo (above) and the surgical team (dark blue) with college hospital medical students and staff.

Marilyn: On January 20, 2024, I made the most compelling humanitarian trip of my life to Sylhet, Bangladesh as part of a 28-member team of Rotaplast medical and non-medical volunteers. Rotaplast is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide reconstructive surgery for cleft lips, cleft palates, and burn scarring deformities. Rotaplast was founded in 1992 by the Rotary Club of San Francisco and the name is a combination of Rotary, one of the oldest service organizations in the world, and plastic surgery.

Since its inception Rotaplast has funded over 257 free surgical clinics across 26 developing countries serving over 20,980 surgical patients. All volunteer medical and non-medical Rotarian teams deliver medical treatment to those in need. Medical volunteers include pediatricians, plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, orthodontists, nurses, and sometimes speech pathologists, geneticists, and audiologists. Non-medical volunteers fill roles of quartermaster, recreation therapist, sterilizer, ward coordinator, pre-op and post-op assistants, patient transportation, interpreter, and historian.

Team members came from the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Egypt, Guatemala, and New Zealand. We were honored that Rotaplast’s co-founder, Dr. Angelo Capozzi, was the lead medical mission director on our trip.

The most common surgeries involved cleft lip and palate, followed by burn scar reconstruction. A cleft is a gap or opening of the lip or roof of the mouth, which normally comes together during the early weeks of pregnancy. A cleft lip operation takes about 20 minutes, while a cleft palate operation averages about two and a half hours. According to Rotaplast, one in 700 children is born with a cleft lip or palate, or both. Worldwide, every three minutes a child is born with a cleft. The known causes are genetics, diet, lifestyle, lack of vitamins, pollution, and smoking while pregnant. The effects of clefts are significant and include abnormal appearance, impaired speech, difficulty swallowing food, respiratory problems, hearing loss, dental problems, and social stigma.

An essential component of a Rotaplast mission is to provide education to local medical professionals to ensure quality care after the team’s departure. The selection of Sylhet Women’s College Hospital allowed both its staff and students to collaborate and work daily with our team’s doctors and nurses in the operating rooms. One evening our team orthodontist presented a training lecture and slide show to aspiring regional dentists and orthodontists on basic to advanced cleft lip and palate development and treatment. On some missions, cleft palate and lip centers are established to provide continuing care.

Surgical team posting with a patient (top), pre- and post-surgery infant patient (immediately above) )and post-operation infant and mother (below). 

My role was that of quartermaster, responsible for transportation of our 33 boxes of medical supplies and equipment, providing food and drink for a nightly hospitality hour, and replenishing medical supplies. The purchases required me to make two daily trips to stores with Tahmid, my invaluable local Rotary assistant. I also helped other team members with care of patients.

Our hosts and sponsors for this mission were the Rotary Clubs of San Jose, CA and Jalalabad, Bangladesh. Chevron was the corporate donor that has donated funds since Sylhet’s first mission in 2015. The Jalalabad Rotarians provided a hospital lounge and daily lunch for our team and were always available to assist us. Toward the end of the mission, they hosted an elaborate dinner for us. We found the Bangladeshi people to be warm, kind, gracious, and appreciative of our mission.

Day one involved screening hundreds of children and adults at the Sylhet Women’s Medical College Hospital to determine suitable patients and schedule them during the eight days of surgeries. Almost all the patients were poor, some traveling from as far as 400 miles away, walking and taking buses to reach Sylhet. Doctors performed nearly 100 operations, some involving patients who needed a second corrective surgery for a different condition. Our team worked in shifts from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. We were required to wear scrubs, booties, masks, and hair nets while in the operating room wing.

The night before surgeries patients were admitted into the pre-operation wards. The following day a pediatrician visited the children to determine if they were healthy enough for surgery. The surgeon followed, explaining the procedures to parents. The anesthesiologist then administered sedatives before escorting patients to surgery. After surgery, patients recovered in the post anesthesia care unit and stayed overnight for observation until released the following day.

Before and after surgeries our team gave away hundreds of small gifts we packed in our suitcases from hotel toiletries of soap, shampoo, and lotions, to socks, stickers and coloring books and crayons for children. The lotions helped burn patients, and the stickers, coloring books and crayons were a welcomed distraction for children awaiting surgeries.

An unexpected challenge one ward coordinator reported was getting some adult patients out of the hospital beds when it was time to go. Those patients had never slept in a bed before and found them so comfortable that they did not want to leave.

After eight days of surgery a final day was devoted to a post-clinic where patients returned for a final check-up and post-care instructions before our departure. That day we gave our supplies of donated dental care kits to the cleft lip and palate patients.

The most fulfilling part of the mission was watching a child from intake through all stages: pre-operation ward, surgery, post-anesthesia, and recovery, when a child was reunited with anxious parents. The look on parents’ faces upon seeing their child’s face transformed from disfigurement to normalcy was emotional and heartwarming. Rarely was there a dry eye in the room

An unusual aspect of Rotaplast is the opportunity for non-medical volunteers to see operations, should they so choose. I was in the operating rooms daily and watched cleft lip, palate and burn reconstruction surgeries.

Finally, it was an honor to work with such a fine team of humanitarians devoted to improving lives of people they will likely never see again. After long but rewarding daily work we enjoyed nightly camaraderie at our hospitality hour. Afterwards we enjoyed dinner at local restaurants.

Fridays and Saturdays are holy days in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country. We chose to take our day off on Saturday, spending it at a tea plantation an hour from Sylhet where we toured the manufacturing plant and tea fields, then enjoyed lunch overlooking the tea garden.

We departed on our flight home on Friday night, February 2nd, all of us relishing our rich and rewarding experience and the new friends we made. I eagerly await volunteering for a Rotaplast mission next year.

Rotaplast sponsors between six to eight missions yearly in conjunction with Rotary Clubs. Rotaplast covers the cost of flights, meals (with the exception of a few dinners) and lodging for the medical staff.  Non-medical volunteers pay for their airfare, visa and inoculation fees. Rotaplast pays for lodging and breakfast. More information about volunteering for Rotaplast is available on their website.

Rotaplast has earned a top 4-star rating on Charity Navigator. The trips and repair and replacement of medical equipment are costly and deserving of support. Rotaplast has earned my devoted following and I encourage others to consider supporting it as a volunteer and a donor.

Marilyn Diaz (front left) and Gloria Mullendore (front right) along with George Ellery Hale family members after a special group CHATs tour (above). Marilyn Diaz (back row second from left, below) during a CHATS field trip to Occidental College Moore Lab of Zoology and on a CHATs tour outside the Athenaeum (middle of image with yellow hat, bottom photo).