Q: What does it mean to you to be an Operation Smile medical volunteer?

A: “When you visit some countries on a programme, it can be overwhelming – yet you see the most amazing resilience, care and determination. I’m always humbled by how parents hand over their babies to you to help – the level of trust bestowed on us is staggering and I never take that for granted. The responsibility is huge. It’s such a privilege to be part of the Operation Smile family and knowing my small contribution is part of a bigger whole. The satisfaction of seeing those smiles is priceless.”

Q: Can you tell us about the nutrition training you have been involved with in Malawi? 

A: “We did some community training around nutrition and feeding with babies, which was really, good and networked as well, with the local speech and language team there on the ground, which was fantastic. And really got to know some of the locals involved in organising community training.  My real passion is to have an early intervention for patients with cleft conditions, and early recognition of the condition. But also you need nutrition, you need these babies fed so that when we see them, they’re fit for surgery. There’s an awful lot more than just cleft surgery – an awful lot more than that!  

“I believe every baby born with a cleft condition should have the opportunity to reach their potential and live their best life. I’m hoping to continue working on this project within the Sub Saharan Africa team and welcome the opportunity to make a difference to the wonderful families we meet in our work.”  

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about early intervention and why nutrition is so important?  

A: “As part of my role in the UK, I look after antenatal mums, so before they’ve had the baby and then see the baby when it’s newborn and then help to get it feeding. Babies need feeding, obviously. But, if you’re in a an environment such as Africa where breastfeeding is the norm, if a baby has a hole in its palate, it doesn’t have the mechanism to successfully draw milk either from breast or bottle. So these babies are the ones that are malnourished. What we need to do is really educate everybody so that we get early recognition of cleft so that a baby isn’t having feeding problems. Can we get mums to hand express their breast milk? Can we get babies to drink from a cup? And if possible, is there any formula milk if Mum doesn’t have enough breast milk? Can we get formula milk? And if we can, where do we get the clean water from? And then you’ve got the whole issue of sterilising bottles, and the costs involved. So again, there are so many different layers to feeding the baby if you’re not just going to simply breastfeed as most mothers do. So that’s why it’s so important to get that early intervention, you need early recognition, to recognise the cleft and get the baby feeding however you can.” 

A young patient sits on her mother's knees, looking at nurse Jackie Matthews, who is smiling and clapping at her. Nurse Emily Silcox sits in the background.
Jackie Matthews and fellow Nurse Emily Silcox with patients during screening in Operation Smile’s 2019 mission to Kazumu Central Hospital, Lilongwe. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Q: Tell us about your recent involvement in the Women in Medicine Programme  

A: “It was a really interesting experience for me, because they were trying to encourage young girls to finish their education and consider a career in medicine. So, it was very uplifting. We met the first lady of Malawi, and her entourage. She had this amazing group of followers who were all dressed in their national dress and costume. They sang and danced and encouraged us to join in with them. It was amazing! And we had some demonstrators, some speakers from the school, and they performed poems and read out various things. They were so confident, and it was a pleasure to see them!” 

Q: In the countries where we work, what do you think are the biggest barriers for women considering a career in medicine?

A: “So, I guess it’s culture, expectations and economics. How do women, or how do any students get to do further education because it costs money? But I think certainly in somewhere like Malawi, there is more of an expectation that the girls will stay at home and be the homemakers or just be at home with their moms until they get married and have children. And for me, I see an opportunity for them, you know, to see what is possible if they follow their dreams? So I guess there’s all sorts of barriers that maybe we don’t have in the Western world.” 

Q: Can you tell us about the training you did in Malawi?

A: “Yes, so we were helping to train up nurses in Malawi – that’s the way – you need to grow your own and really empower those young people coming in. And I’m at the Twilight end of my career if you like, so I’m more interested in really bringing on those people who I can pass on my experience, my knowledge and really get them fired up. I want to hand on the baton so they can get going and wherever we can teach, then these people can be self-sufficient. That for me, is so important.”

Nurse Jackie Matthews comforts grandmother Belita by placing a hand on her back, as four year old Esnart lies on a hospital bed covered in a blanket decorated with cars.
Jackie Matthews with four year old Esnart and her grandmother Belita following surgery in Malawi. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Q: Can you tell us about a favourite memory or patient story that really stands out for you?

A: “One of them that sticks in my mind is a lovely, lovely mum. We’d done the surgery and looked after her child in recovery. The moment when a mum comes to see their baby is always emotional, but this mum was so excited. She was beside herself, doing roly polies down the centre aisle of the recovery room! When she saw her baby for the first time with the cleft repaired, oh my goodness we were all very teary – tears of joy! It’s wonderful because you can just see the life that you’re giving back.  

“More recently, there was a baby who was very, very malnourished. I’d taken out some spare bottles with me and along with the nutrition team, we were able to feed this baby that had only ever been fed by a teaspoon. This baby was tiny, too small to operate on. So we fed the baby and the baby was just wow!’ this is amazing!’ and gulped down a great, long feed. And that was so satisfying, because we know now that the baby can feed and next time we can scoop him up and he’ll get his surgery.”  

Q: What motivates you to keep coming back?

A: “Well, I think everything that I’ve told you, it’s the passion of making a difference, of knowing that we can. It’s the friendships that I’ve made with Operation Smile. And it’s partly knowing that you go somewhere and you absolutely make such a big difference to people’s lives. It’s just amazing. And I have to say since I joined in 2011, it has really changed my life completely. Which is wonderful.” 

Q: What would you say to donors who support Operation Smile?

A: “I would say that all the money that they can give, goes to change a child’s life and will change their life forever, and also their family. Because the impact that a cleft can have on a child is not just that child, it’s the entire family. So with that one donation, you can change a child’s life and a whole family. So I’d say you know, it’s money well spent.”

Patient Davie is sat in a white plastic chair, wearing a grey hoodie and black jeans. Nurse Jackie Matthews, wearing a red tshirt, cream trousers, and with sunglasses perched on her head, crouches down to talk with Davie.
Nurse Jackie Matthews talks to Davie during Operation Smile’s 2019 mission to Kazumu Central Hospital, Lilongwe. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

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