Skyler Troast is a 17-year-old studying at Pequannock Township High School in New Jersey, USA. Skyler has been part of her schools Operation Smile Club for the past three years and will be attending her third International Student Leadership Conference this July. Earlier this year Skyler travelled to India as part of the team on our Future of Smiles Mission, West Bengal, India. Here she shares the story of one of the patients the team was able to help, Ganesh.
Ganesh lived in a world where his problems were pushed aside. Born with a cleft lip, his mother died when he was an infant, and he relied solely on his grandmother to raise him. As time went on, the role of the boy, once young and naïve, and the role of the grandmother, once strong and wise, eventually swapped. Twenty-five years later, Ganesh is the primary provider for his household.
Having never set foot inside a hospital before, Ganesh’s perception of surgery was far from accurate. The hospital is where you go to die, he believed, and he never sought treatment. Why add stress to his dwindling grandmother? Why lose a day’s worth of wages? Why risk his life? His grandmother was fully aware of his condition but never wanted him to receive surgery for fear of losing him. Most inhabitants of India never associate safe with safety. Even if there was a sustainable healthcare centres, it was located too far from the home of most patients in need.
With that being said, our Operation Smile team travelled a total of five hours to rural areas in West Bengal in search of patients like Ganesh, patients who did not know about Operation Smile or that safe surgery is possible. Operation Smile’s goal was to not only ensure that we reached out to all eligible patients but to help change their overall perception of surgery.
Our effort, called the Future of Smiles Mission, was organised by the Inga Health Foundation, in collaboration with Operation Smile Incorporated and hosted by Baroma Hospital, Panskura, West Bengal.
Ganesh walked up to our patient recruitment table in Medinipur on the 5th of January. Bhaskar Mukherjee, one of Operation Smile’s Programme Coordinators, shook his hand firmly and gestured for him to sit down. Ganesh had been persuaded by his friends to visit our patient recruitment centre, they knew Ganesh better than anyone else and they could not imagine him missing out on an opportunity that could transform the way he lived his everyday life – so much so that they gathered up money to cover his lost day’s wages.
Ganesh seemed reserved and unmoved by the efforts Operation Smile made to evaluate his cleft lip. My first impression of him was that he was tough. He had endured a life filled with anger, solitude and more for twenty-five years. No one understood why Ganesh looked so “different.”
After refusing surgery, Bhaskar knew he had to find another way to ensure Ganesh attended our next medical mission. Bhaskar agreed with Ganesh when it came to his cleft in that it certainly didn’t affect him physically and would not cause him any health problems in the future. However, life with a cleft does take an emotional toll, Bhaskar said: With a cleft lip, Ganesh cannot go to the market like Bhaskar can. With a cleft lip, Ganesh did not have the confidence to seek a wife and family. With a cleft lip, Ganesh was automatically tied down socially and unaware of the power of his voice.
Not having been to a safe hospital with proper equipment and well-trained doctors, he was hesitant to accept the mission opportunity. After counselling with Bhaskar, Ganesh finally agreed to attend the upcoming medical mission.
As he was exiting the room, he still seemed a tad uneasy about the whole situation. Lili, another member of our Operation Smile staff, pulled out a picture from her backpack. The picture was of a previous patient before and after their surgery. The instant Ganesh saw the picture, Lili saw his entire mood shift. He knew at that moment that he wanted the surgery that had clearly changed the life of the beautiful young boy on the card he had been shown.
Thanks to Operation Smile and its partners, we were able to successfully pilot this new patient recruitment programme in India and recruit more than 100 new patients. By doing this, we eliminated the barrier to care of transportation and spread the word about Operation Smile with people who would otherwise have never come across the organisation. We even managed to change the perception patients like Ganesh had towards surgery.