Scenes From the Field: November Medical Missions

Editor’s Note: November was a busy month for Operation Smile medical programs as we rang in our 35th anniversary back in the United States. It seemed like almost daily, our inboxes were full of incredible stories of hope and healing from the field. As we reflect on the 20 medical missions conducted last month, we were inspired to pull together these highlights and photos to celebrate the accomplishments of our global family of volunteers, staff and supporters.

Safi, Morocco: 173 patients received surgery


“On the beautiful coast of Safi, warming all the team’s hearts was Sarah, a 10-month-old with a cleft lip and palate who was abandoned by her parents months ago. Currently, she is cared for by an orphanage at our hospital, Hospital Mohammed V, and brought to Operation Smile with hopes that she would be able to receive surgery for her cleft lip. As the hospital nurse carried her through the screening process, Sarah’s innocence and sweetness won the hearts of each team member. Every surgeon and anaesthetist wanted to have Sarah on their table!” – Madison Ebel, Operation Smile program coordinator.


“Fit for safe surgery, Sarah made her way onto Wednesday’s surgical schedule. After her successful procedure, our anaesthetist from Italy, Federico, and I went to visit the orphanage at the hospital to check on and snuggle with her. Federico and his wife would like to adopt her. It’s quite difficult to do as he’s not of Moroccan nationality, but we’re researching and reaching out to see what’s possible! Sarah will have to be operated on again in Agadir for her cleft palate and provided the orphanage director the contact information and dates. No matter what, we’re going to keep following up on this sweet girl! We only hope to create more opportunities for safe surgery for those patients we haven’t reached yet and those we didn’t have space for in Safi – until we heal every last child!” – Madison Ebel, Operation Smile program coordinator.


“Sbira, a 22-year-old man who received cleft lip surgery, pulled out his phone and asked for photos with our lovely paediatrician, Dr. Michael Hofmann, and one of our pre/post-op nurses, Carmel Corso. Sbira travelled more than 20 hours, via bus and walking, to the mission site by himself. Team members talked about how quiet, kind and collected he is. As our last patient on the table, Dr. Shadi Alsmadi, our paediatric intensivist, spoke to me about him on the way back to the hotel. Not only did he travel a very long distance all by himself, but he was so sure in his disposition and with his words about coming to Operation Smile Morocco. He never cried, never seemed overwhelmed nor overjoyed in his expressions – just calm and sure that this is what he needed. This surgery is what would positively impact his life. From babies to older adults, the humbleness of our patients and guardians cannot he reiterated enough.” – Madison Ebel, Operation Smile program coordinator.

Oaxaca, Mexico: 99 patients received surgery


“The emotional support given to our patients by our volunteers has been magnificent to watch. Susana, a 9-year-old girl with a primary cleft, waited anxiously with her cousin inside the transition area where our patients are being met by an anaesthetist to be taken into the operating room. Rosalba, a clinical coordinator, and Gloria, a paediatric intensivist, started talking to her and telling her not to be scared. They asked her about her life and whether or not she was in school. They learned she was in the fourth grade and, although many kids with cleft conditions do not go to school, her mother always wanted to make sure that no matter what, her daughters had an education. As the conversation continued, Susana began to smile and look around as if surrounded by new friends. Since she was accompanied by her cousin, they asked if her mom had stayed at home. Susana looked behind the door and pointed to her mother sitting in the hallway. Tears began to well on her face because she was so thankful of her family for helping her and always being proud of her. Gloria pulled her in, giving her a hug and said, ‘When you wake up in that room, you will not need to cry because I will be there.’” – Drea Meyer, Operation Smile program coordinator.


“The Governor of Oaxaca, Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, and Oaxaca’s First Lady, Ivette Morán, visited our team at the hospital. Both are huge supporters of the work of Operation Smile and were instrumental in forging and fostering the partnership with the government in the state of Oaxaca. Below is a photo of the Governor and First Lady with a few of our medical team leaders, from left to right; Rosalba Frias, clinical coordinator, Mexico; Ivette Morán; Dr. Miguel Angel Bonal, paediatric intensivist, Mexico; Alejandro Murat Hinojosa; and Lucia Mauer, clinical coordinator, United States.” – Drea Meyer, Operation Smile program coordinator.


“It’s thanks to the leadership of Ivette Morán that many of the patients receiving surgery today are here. In addition to serving as Oaxaca’s First Lady, she is also the director of Mexico’s National System for Integral Family Development (DIF). The DIF has a registry of patients living in the state of Oaxaca born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. One of the patients recruited through the DIF is Rosa, a 1-and-a-half-year-old beautiful girl born with a cleft lip. She was born into a Zapoteca family of farmers living in the coastal town of San Agustín Loxicha. This is the third time her mother, Minerva, has made the six-hour journey to Oaxaca with the hope that her daughter would receive surgery… But this time, Minerva feels so full with happiness because it’s finally happening. Even during the surgery, she felt calm because of the trust and support that our team has given her.” – Drea Meyer, Operation Smile program coordinator.


“There's one patient that has come into the hospital every day this week. Juan is a 17-year-old that lives in a small town about an hour-and-a-half away. He was born with a cleft lip and palate, both of which were repaired when he was younger at the cleft centre at the Hospital de la Niñez Oaxaqueño. He heard we were doing a mission and came to screening to see if it was possible for him to receive a lip scar revision. During screening, he was introduced to speech therapy, a consultation he had not received on his prior visits. Beth and Edile, our two speech pathologists, say that he was hesitant about the therapy. They asked him, ‘Please just come again for a consultation on Monday – we promise you will get something out of it.’ Not only did he come Monday, but every day for an hour per day until today, when he received his lip scar revision surgery. I asked him while he was waiting in pre-op what his favourite thing was about Operation Smile, and he said his time working with speech. He had never had a health professional so engaged with his personal performance and, although it was only a few days, he feels like he has learned so much. Here’s a picture of him and his mother before surgery. As I was talking to Juan, his mother ran over as if to translate what he was saying. However, he pronounced and emphasised all of his words correctly and she never needed to repeat what he was saying.” – Drea Meyer, Operation Smile program coordinator.


Managua, Nicaragua: 116 patients received surgery


“We had one patient, Milten, who was celebrating his 20th birthday with us by getting his primary cleft lip repaired! He walked for four hours to find a bus to get him from his home in Comunidad Guarumo in Rio Grande to us in Managua – a two-day trip. He was accompanied by an acquaintance from his town, since his single mother had to stay home with his seven other siblings. He told us that he never knew that surgery existed for his condition until he went to the Red Cross because he was feeling sick and they sent him our way! Today is also the birthday of another patient who received surgery yesterday. She’s turning 14 and came back after multiple surgeries before for a fistula repair. Happy birthday to both!” – Elana Horwitz, Operation Smile program coordinator.


Haldia, India: 187 patients received surgery


“With so many volunteers from many different countries, it is great to see them working well together and continuing to get to know one another. At the end of the day our resident, Alejandro Lozano from Argentina, said: ‘This is amazing. After this mission, I know I want to be a cleft surgeon. This is the work I should be doing and I need to be doing it in every country. I want to go home and use these techniques to better my work. I love this and I love Operation Smile.’ It was a pleasant reminder that we, as an organisation, are not only changing the lives of our patients, but also making an incredible impact on our young volunteers who come to learn and help others.” – Asha Patel, Operation Smile program coordinator.

“Thanks to our amazing team of volunteers, a 5-year-old boy’s life changed forever today because of a cleft lip repair. Unfortunately, his mom could not join her son for this life-changing procedure because as a single mother, she works tirelessly to support herself and her son. His grandfather accompanied him, promising his mother that he would bring him back home safely after surgery. Upon seeing his grandson in the recovery room, he started crying tears of joy; he is extremely grateful that he can bring his grandson back safely to his mother. His grandfather commented that this is ‘the best day of my life.’ Like many of our patients, the young boy does not go to school because his family assumed that his lip would heal on its own as he grew older. In the next few weeks, he will join his neighbourhood friends at school to learn, play and live life. Haldia is full of beautiful greenery and generous people, and our team is grateful to be here helping the children of West Bengal.” – Hannah Dobie, Operation Smile program coordinator.


Iloilo, Philippines: 114 patients received surgery


“After three days of the mission, we can definitely say that 34 hours of travelling all the way from Central America to the Philippines is completely worth it. Volunteering for Operation Smile at an international mission has been a life-changing experience, making us reflect upon many different things. From the moment we left our homes and landed on the other side of the world, we stepped out of our comfort zones and it has all been amazing. Never knowing what to expect, we always held an open mind and attitude, allowing us to embrace the experience fully. We have had the pleasure of working with some amazing doctors, nurses, coordinators, and local volunteers who have made us all feel at home. Despite being only ‘students,’ we have been given important tasks and roles throughout the mission. Through the days, we have realised how interesting each role is. As a volunteer, there are moments when you’re exhausted running around with patients, or just sitting down waiting to be called for duty. Meanwhile, the operating room team is always busy and coordinators and nurses always doing the “behind the scenes” tasks. Luckily, we’ve also had the opportunity to visit a local community and a local school to talk about hygiene, thus learning more about the culture of the Philippines. Inside of the hospital since screening day, we have been able to interact with patients and a hard-working team. Apart from the beauty of the mission, we have all been surprised by the kindness of the people that surround us. We could never get tired of listening to, ‘Thank you ma’am,’ everywhere we go, and seeing the constant smiles from those around us. Essentially, getting to sit down, listen, and play with the patients before and after their surgeries while exploring a new culture is a life-changing experience, and that is all we could ask for.” – Valentina Donado, student volunteer, Panama. Pictured are Gabel Sagel, student sponsor, Panama, bottom left; Geraldine Martinez, student volunteer, Panama, top left; Alejandra Garcia, student volunteer, Panama, center; Valentina, top right; and a young patient and her mother.


Wenshan, China: 116 patients received surgery

 “Arms wiggled their way free from scrub tops as feet shuffled into shoes. Wenshan’s operating room was filled today with Operation Smile volunteers orienting themselves to emergency drills and a new working environment. With our first patient stepping through the operating room doors, the team went to work ensuring every patient left smiling… or at least with a new smile! Sometimes, even the best care can’t stop a baby from being upset at these masked strangers! As the morning turned to afternoon, conversation was made over clementine peeling, transforming individuals into teammates.” – Steven Martinez, Operation Smile program coordinator.


Koforidua, Ghana: 147 patients received surgery


The mother gave birth to a child with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Immediately the father saw the child and kicked the mother and the child out of the house. The mother went to her family members for help, but no one gave them any. Fingers were being pointed at them, as they were insulted and teased. The community said the child is not fit to be a human being and is a child of the river. Currently, the mother is squatting with a friend. Through the awareness campaign of Operation Smile Ghana, the child was registered and became one of our patients. The mother was quoted saying, ‘Thank you Operation Smile Ghana. I came to my own, but my own rejected me. You knew me not yet you showed love to me. Thanks for the love shown. Forever and ever I will all ways spread the good news of Operation Smile.’” – Clement Ofosuhemeng, Operation Smile Ghana patient coordinator.

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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