Father Documents Son Changing Lives, One Face At A Time
HANOI, Vietnam — Sometimes it takes a generation or two before the full impact of a story can be fully known, and so it was for photojournalist George Griner, who waited a quarter-century to see that a story he worked on in China had a big payoff, right in his own family.
“Well I remember when we were in China,” said his colleague, former KSL reporter Jane Clayson Johnson. “George turned to me and he said, ‘Gosh this would be a great experience for my son.’ And I said, ‘I think it would be.'”
His father’s coverage of that 1995 mission to China by a medical team from Operation Smile inspired young Devan Griner as a teenager. It launched him on a career as a plastic surgeon and this summer it even led him back to Asia to perform numerous surgeries with Operation Smile. His father was there, too, shooting video for yet another news story.
“He’s here with me on this trip,” Devan said between surgeries in Hanoi, Vietnam. “And for him to give me a hug this morning and say, ‘Good luck,’ everything came full circle.”
The original story won national honors for KSL TV. Reporter Jane Clayson, video editor Bob Brown and KSL chief photographer George Griner produced a 1995 documentary called “Faces of Hope.” A winner of the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award, it documented a mission of mercy by Operation Smile which brought hope — and smiles — to children 7,000 miles away.
“Anticipation is building at a hospital inside Communist China,” Clayson said in the opening narration of the documentary. “This day holds great hope for hundreds of children who live with severe and often crippling deformities; cleft lips, cleft palates, birthmarks and burns that have never been treated.”
Plastic surgery can have a dramatic effect on the lives of children who are sometimes ostracized or neglected because of their appearance. “You take the beast and you make them the beauty,” one member of the Operation Smile medical team said in the documentary. “You take the outcast and you make them a member of society.”
“Story-wise, it was an incredible story of hope,” said Jane Clayson Johnson in an interview at KSL TV studios. Looking back on her reporting for the 1995 documentary, she remembered it as one of the most meaningful — and inspiring — stories of her journalism career.
“It inspired me,” she said, emphasizing the word, me. “It inspired me. There’s no question about it.”
For the Griner family, the inspiration reached into the next generation. After returning from China in 1995, George showed the documentary to his teenage son, Devan. With his brothers, Devan started an Operation Smile support group at Skyline High School.
“I don’t know what their goal was, but they ended up raising a million pennies!” George said.
With that success under his belt, Operation Smile invited young Devan to go on a surgical mission to Vietnam as a student volunteer. He returned to Utah with a new purpose in life.
“To this day I’ll never forget, I picked him up at the airport,” his father said. “He set his bags down and tears came to his eyes. And he gave you one of those looks and he said, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do.'”
He went to medical school and eventually became a plastic surgeon, learning a set of skills that took him on a new mission to Vietnam in 2019.
“We’ll once again join hands together to bring many more life-changing smiles for our little angels,” said a Vietnamese man speaking to young children and parents as well as to the Operation Smile team as they prepared for surgery.
“It’s exactly what I planned, yet it still amazes me,” said Dr. Devan Griner, dressed in scrubs in an operating room at a Hanoi hospital.
He said his career choice was inspired by what he saw in his dad’s 1995 documentary.
“Being able to see what could be done in such a short period of time and the emotion and the effect it was going to have for that child that you could see in the family and everybody else,” Devan said. “You literally could change a life in a matter of minutes. And it made me decide that’s what I wanted to do.”
His father echoed the thought.
“It’s about a 45-minute surgery and it makes them normal,” George said. “It’s a magic wand.”
“I won’t lie. I woke up this morning, had a little (case of) butterflies in my stomach,” Devan Griner said in the operating room on his first day of surgery in Vietnam. “I was a little nervous about it. But showing up, I just got back to work and it’s like any day in the O.R. for me now. It feels so exciting to be on that end of the table, now that I’m actually able to perform these surgeries and to help change these kids’ lives. That still kind of baffles me; I still think I’m that 16-year-old kid in high school. But here I am doing what I dreamed of doing.”
Dr. Griner operated on 17 children; the entire Operation Smile team performed 89 surgeries. “We got some cleft lips done and some cleft palates done and a lot of happy families,” Devan said. A screening process was used to select the kids who were healthy enough for surgery and needed it the most. Every mission by Operation Smile is a reminder that many more kids around the world need help, as 109 kids and their families were turned away, at least for now.
“You get to go home feeling like you did something, you get to actually feel like you’re making a difference in this world and trying to make it better for the other people around you,” Devan said. “When you’ve seen how most of the world lives and you’ve witnessed that first experience, how do you function every day and not think how am I going to help those people? How can you go about your daily life without thinking of those people every day? And so, I do this because I feel like it’s the right thing to do, but I also feel like I have to.”
Surgeons meet with parents before surgery.
“I will take care of him like he’s my own,” Devan promised the anxious mother of a small child.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for these parents,” he said after performing surgery on the toddler’s face. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to hand over your baby to foreign doctors that can’t even speak your language and hoping and praying that it comes back to you, fixed.”
When Griner told another young mother that her child’s surgery went well, she clasped the surgeon’s hands and hugged him. The truth is, there are huge rewards for the medical team as well as their patients.
“Everybody who went on those service missions, they were transformed,” Jane Clayson Johnson said, recalling her 1995 mission to China. “Something happened within them. They could see change in front of them. It happened with me. It happened with George. It happened with all the doctors who were there. It’s a remarkable experience to witness.”
George Griner no longer works for KSL TV but agreed to accompany his son to Vietnam to cover the mission for KSL TV. In the Hanoi operating room, he said, “I had never seen him do surgery. So that was a real thrill today.”