She Lived in Pain for More than 20 Years
Editor’s note: Since Operation Smile’s founding in 1982, delivering safe surgery to people living with cleft conditions in low-resource settings around the world has been – and will continue to be – its driving force.
But as the organisation expanded into more and more places of dire need, it has been met by the devastating effects of hospitals operating with inadequate infrastructure and equipment.
Fuelled by the foundational belief that everyone in need of surgery deserves exceptional care, Operation Smile is applying its expertise in treating cleft conditions to create sustainable solutions that will bring safe and essential surgery to people where it’s needed most.
In rural northeastern Nicaragua, this life-saving work is already underway through a pilot project called Cirurgía para el Pueblo – “Surgery for the People.”
Immense pain dominated Nicolasa’s life for much of the past two decades.
The days of her feeling strong and happy working on a farm near Siuna, Nicaragua, have transformed into days filled with discomfort and sadness.
As a mother with a family to support, she tried to fight off the agony for as long as she could.
“By using home remedies, I could handle it. The pain went away,” she said.
“But one year ago, it got worse.”
After an ultrasound, Nicolasa learned that the pain was caused by a large kidney stone on her right side. And since she didn’t receive medical treatment for 20 years, she developed a severe infection that put her life at risk.
At the time of her diagnosis, doctors informed her that she needed surgery as soon as possible to save her life, but one major challenge stood in her way: safe surgical care wasn’t available in her hometown. People living in this area were forced to travel hours away from their homes, over rough and dangerous mountain roads, to the distant capital city of Managua when they needed treatment.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
But leaving was never an option for Nicolasa, who dedicates much of her life to caring for her son, who became paralyzed below his neck after suffering a tragic accident many years ago.
“One day, he went to swim in the river, and he hit his head on a stone and had a cervical fracture,” she said. “He can’t turn around; he can’t do anything. I look after him.”
The love that she had for her son allowed Nicolasa to put his needs above her own health and well-being.
“It is hard for me to do all the work at home. It is hard for me to be in charge of everything. Because I used to like working in the field with the machete, to milk the cows.” she said. “But now I feel weak and sad, without the strength I used to have.”
But today, parents like Nicolasa no longer have to choose between supporting their families and traveling to get essential surgical care. With support from the UBS Optimus Foundation, Operation Smile and Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health are working together on a pilot project at the two primary hospitals in Siuna and Bonanza called Cirurgía para el Pueblo – “Surgery for the People.” By joining forces, Operation Smile and the Ministry of Health seek to improve the surgical infrastructure of the hospitals and to spread awareness about surgically treatable conditions to the people of this remote region.
Nicolasa poses for a photo with members of her family. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
This project has provided the staff at Siuna’s hospital with essential equipment and training so that patients can get the high-quality care they deserve without having to sacrifice the resources and time needed to travel to Managua, a round trip that would take an entire day or more to complete via bus trip.
On this day, Nicolasa received another ultrasound, but instead of leaving the hospital dejected and in pain, she looked forward to gaining back the strength and happiness she once enjoyed.
After 20 years of selflessly putting her family’s needs above her own, Nicolasa finally has the opportunity to live a life free of pain through a safe surgery that she’ll receive in her hometown.
Dr. Augustin Mendoza evaluates Nicolasa ahead of her surgery. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.