A New Family Across the Atlantic

301.jpgI was completely surrounded by a crowd of mothers, fathers, cousins and friends, clinging onto my every word as I demonstrated basic nutrition, safety and hygiene information – things I had learned as a young child.

I was on my first medical mission with Operation Smile as a student volunteer. My task was to educate families on these things I saw as second nature.

Everyone listened to me as if I was one of the Operation Smile surgeons who might operate on their child. I did not realize the impact of these lessons until an elderly grandmother told me that she had not known the information and was extremely grateful that students from the United States took the time to educate her. She assured me that when she returned home, she would share this new knowledge with her entire village.

I was awestruck. Even during this intense time of uncertainty, these families kindly expressed their appreciation for the student team.

My eyes stung from dust and tears just two days later. I led a group of patients across the arid, continuous landscape clutching a white slip of paper branded with the letter H. For them, this represents a disheartening trip to the hospital. For them, this is the start of a wearisome journey home. My heart tightened with overwhelming sadness for those who could not receive surgery because of malnutrition or infection.

But at the same time, I whispered a sigh of relief and joy for all of the sweet, optimistic children waiting back at the patient shelter for the upcoming week of operations.

Surgery week overflowed with action, each moment life-changing. I brought sets of four patients from the pre/post-operation ward to the child life play area throughout the day. The nervous tension of surgery day radiated from the families. To help ease their nerves, I would play with the children in the child life area.

It was in the child life area that I met a little boy waiting for surgery named Bernard. We played games and I helped calm his nerves before surgery. I was there right before he went into the OR and after he was released from surgery. I delivered him to his mother and saw the happiness on her face. This was the first time she saw her child after his facial deformity had been surgically repaired. I walked them both back to the pre/post-op ward. Bernard gripped my hand until he fell asleep.

I witnessed the surgery of a cleft lip, a momentous experience I never dreamt would happen. My mission partner and I visited four schools in Tamale during the mission, handing out toothbrushes and changing lives as we encouraged the children to help make a change in their community. In just one week, we reached over 100 local students inspiring them to volunteer and make a difference in the lives of the people in Tamale.

By the end of the surgery week, the patient shelter was my home and all the people staying there became my family. Everyone was elated to see me as I walked up the dust path to the shelter for the last time. As they all grinned at me calling "my sister, my sister", I smiled back, having adopted their friendly culture in just a few fleeting days, and greeted them as customary in Twi-"Nah." Seconds after, I was encircled by children eager to play, tugging at my backpack. As I unveiled a beach ball, I paused to absorb the scene. There stood in front of me a gathering of Ghanaian children, no different from American children, who no longer suffered from cleft lip, cleft palate or other facial deformities.

Thanks to their Operation Smile surgery, now they could eat and drink properly and interact with other children without exclusion or judgment. A wave of emotion poured over me, almost enveloping me in a swell of tears, over the amazing work the doctors had performed and the gut-wrenching reality of our departure the next day. Instead, I pulled everyone into a tight hug and picked up Bernard. Reluctant to let go, I squeezed him against my chest, knowing I would remember him and the rest of the children forever and only hoping the same were true for them.

I never could have imagined that I would fly to Ghana and spend nine days at the Tamale Teaching Hospital, watching the lives of patients and their families transform right along with mine. After attending leadership conferences, mission training, fundraising and collecting donations for three previous missions that were ultimately false alarms, the two-year wait and roller coaster of emotions paled in comparison to the unforgettable experience of an Operation Smile medical mission.

My heart is still in Tamale, distributed among the 78 patients and their loved ones.

The Ghanaian people have given me my voice, and just as they thanked me for my service, I owe a deep gratitude to the people of Tamale for showing me kindness and allowing me to share their stories as my own. In spite of the fact that a mission is focused on the metamorphosis of the patients, it was impossible for me to leave Tamale unchanged.

Operation Smile gave hope to those who believed they were forgotten.

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President