Imagine an exotic journey. You are allowed one suitcase and one carry-on. Maybe you know the language of the country you’re traveling to. More likely, you don’t. You do know the conditions will be stifling, the days long, the breaks short, and the people desperately poor. But the lives you touch will be changed forever.
You are part of a team, the Operation Smile team, that gives children with cleft lip and palate hope for a normal life. As a volunteer, your own life will be equally transformed.
Meet three women in our community who have packed their bags and joined Operation Smile medical missions in far-off lands. These volunteers are members of a caring, international, multicultural family that travels to underserved areas so they can provide medical care to the the poorest of the poor. Through Operation Smile, children and adults receive free surgery to repair their cleft lips, close holes in their palates, and to smile at last.
TEARS & CELEBRATION
Last year Dr. Maria Mendrinos became involved with Operation Smile, thanks to her son Alex, now 11, who was active with Operation Smile at Alanton Elementary. Alex was selected to be an ambassador for Operation Smile on a mission to Nicaragua last spring, and Maria joined him.
Between rescheduling patients due to the recent snowstorm and preparing to mentor an upcoming Greek dance competition in Annapolis, Maria was able to squeeze out time for an interview. A mother of three with a thriving dental practice, Maria is a trim woman with a ready hug and a wide smile. She exudes vitality and heart.
Alex opened the door to his mother’s dental practice when I arrived. Warm brown eyes and a cheerful grin, like his mom’s, greeted me. Mother and son led me to the kitchen break room, where our journey began.
Maria and Alex leaned forward, and the words tumbled forth as they recounted their mission to Nicaragua with Operation Smile in April 2016. Packing for the trip, they threw the bare necessities for themselves into backpacks and filled their suitcases with makeshift hospital gowns created from t-shirts by students at Broadwater Academy on the Eastern Shore.
When they arrived in Nicaragua, the heat blasted them full force. Then they were struck by the happiness of the people they met.
“It was so hot. So hot,” Maria recalled. “We met in tents for the screening and I was dripping. And these people are so happy. We complain standing in line at the DMV in the A.C.”
Once flyers were posted advertising Operations Smile’s arrival, villages raised money to help send a child for an Operation Smile screening. Many children, accompanied by parents and other relatives, had walked up to three days to get there. They carried their drinking water in plastic bags. Their poverty was extreme, their sense of gratitude to have this opportunity, profound.
Each morning, Maria and Alex awoke at 5:30 a.m. By 7 a.m., they were seated on the bus with the other volunteers, heading to the makeshift clinic. Their day did not end until 10 p.m.
For the first two days, hundreds of people were screened. They stood in long lines in the heat, hoping to have a chance to qualify for a surgery that would be the key to their escape from a life of stigma. After the screening, the members of Operation Smile, made up of the Nicaragua team and American volunteers, determined who qualified.
At the end of two days, the selected Nicaraguans were re-examined to make sure they were still healthy enough for the surgery. The night before their surgery, they were not allowed anything to eat or drink. When they woke up, they didn’t know what time their surgery would be. Hungry tummies added stress to the wait time.
To distract the patients, volunteers entertained the children. “Each day had a theme: moustache day, Hawaiian day, to keep everyone’s spirits up,” Maria said. “Alex was very popular with his soccer ball.”
The families waited outside in a courtyard for their child’s turn to go into the operating room. If there was enough time and space, the medical team took in adults with cleft lip and palate.
From the courtyard, the anesthesiologist took the child to the O.R., where the miracles occurred. “It’s one and a half hours to not being a stigma in society,” Maria said. “You’re able to speak, to eat, to learn.”
Maria extracted teeth to help with the closure of the cleft. But only extractions that expedited surgical repair of the cleft were allowed because surgery time was so valuable. If there was spare time, other surgical needs, such as plastic surgery to reconstruct part of a missing nose, could take place.
Once the surgery was over, the child recovered in the post-op area. There the mother saw her child again. Tears and celebration erupted. A child’s life was transformed forever, thanks to the united efforts of countless team members.
“Every single role was so important: cargo loading, RN’s, the kids who made the t-shirt hospital gowns, “ Maria noted. “Everybody had a role but wanted to exceed that role. We’re always thinking, how else can I make this work for you?”
But how did Maria make it work for her? How did she fit a two-week mission into her busy life as a dentist, wife, mother of three, and leader in her Greek community?
“You make the decision and you just do it,” said Maria, who believes we are all put on this earth because we have a talent to give, whatever that talent might be. “You have to be a soul who says I’m giving all of me, parts I don’t even know I have—because that’s the only way you can serve.”
Brigette Clifford, a volunteer with Operation Smile’s student programs, says the number of student volunteers is growing exponentially worldwide. [It’s] the most powerful environment [for students]”, she said. “They’re around all these altruistic people who very much want to serve.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
The groundwork for Cathy Snyder’s volunteer work with Operation Smile was laid in Brazil when she was 18 years old. Through the American Field Service, Cathy, a native of Tennessee, got to spend three and a half months living with a Brazilian family. Although she could have divided her time between her adopted family and other American students nearby, she chose to spend all of her time with her Brazilian family.
“They were so generous with me, so kind. I was a true member of their family,” Cathy recalled. “I got a sense of culture, how families really live. And I started dreaming and thinking in Portuguese!” She still glows with that memory.
Now a new grandmother, Cathy’s youthful, athletic build and contagious energy are still part of her DNA—as is her desire to immerse herself in other cultures.
Cathy has participated in more than 25 missions with Operation Smile over the past 19 years and is looking forward to many more to come. She wanted to go on a mission trip in 1988, but her children were two and four years old at the time and she couldn’t take off for two weeks—yet.
In 1999, Cathy went on her first mission—to Brazil. Her command of Portuguese and skill as a pediatric speech-language pathologist were a perfect fit for this trip. And her two children, ages 12 and 14, were old enough for her to leave them in the care of her husband, a busy pediatrician, for the two weeks she would be gone.
Cathy spends months preparing for every mission. She researches the culture and sounds of the language. She learns basic phrases and develops stacks of picture cards to facilitate communication.
“Fifteen years ago, illiteracy was so prevalent that we mostly used pictures to communicate,” said Cathy. “The written words for each picture were often useless.”
“People who come to get a cleft lip repaired need basic speech therapy to help them pronounce the sounds we make with our lips: b, p, m,” Cathy said, noting that the cleft lip operation is key to helping patients speak.
Even after the repair of the hole in the roof of their mouths, patients need to learn to direct sound out of their mouths and not through their noses. Cathy works closely with the surgeon to assess the speech sounds of patients after their surgery.
“We’re all equals [there]. Everyone’s contribution is equally valuable,” she noted. “When people get together to help children, we all do whatever we can.”
Cathy remembers working with a young boy in India whose parents had abandoned him on the street at the age of 3 because of his cleft lip. He’d been taken in by Duncan, a kind soul who lived in a tiny shed. Duncan read fliers about Operation Smile coming to their area and brought the boy in for a screening. The OpSmile team heard his story and raised enough money amongst themselves to send him to boarding school, where he thrived and took up soccer. He continued to visit Duncan on the weekends and eventually graduated. Another life, transformed.
“It goes back to being 18 years old in Brazil and feeling that sharing of their culture and their family. I wanted to pay that forward,” Cathy said.
Cathy agrees with Albert Pike’s words: “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
A FAMILY OF VOLUNTEERS
Betty Eisele had been volunteering every Wednesday at Operation Smile’s warehouse in Virginia Beach for two years when she realized, “Hey, I’ve got to see what they do with all of these things we sort.”
Thus, at the age of 72, Betty embarked on her first mission trip with Operation Smile. She went to the Philippines where she served as a medical records coordinator, screening and registering around 200 people in 12 days.
Betty loved it. She signed on for four more Operations Smile missions over the next few years, working in Brazil, Venezuela, and Nairobi, Kenya.
“Everyone I’ve worked with is marvelous. I’ve been on missions to three or four countries and everyone is just super,” she said.
In Nairobi, they scheduled the surgeries from Monday through Saturday afternoon. Betty remembers a 35 year-old man arriving with another man, his friend.
“He had a terrible cleft lip,” she recalled. “It was Saturday, 10 a.m., our last day. I told him, I don’t know if we can help you. They always prioritize the children. I called surgery. They said, ‘We can fit him in and do it under local anesthesia. Has he eaten anything?’
“As it happened, he had been fasting since the night before for his religion,” Betty said. He got in.
Betty loves to watch as patients look at their faces in mirrors for the first time after their surgery. “They have the biggest smile you ever saw,” she said. “I’m always so happy seeing these children in post-op.”
Betty, now 84, continues to volunteer one day a week at Operation Smile’s warehouse. “I help unload and sort the contents of boxes and I prepare the surgical trays with their instruments. We send 30 trays out on a mission,” she said.
“Every person’s job is vital,” Betty noted, “from the ladies’ clubs that create ‘smile bags’ and fill them with toothbrushes and toothpaste to the nurses and surgeons in the O.R.”
She recalls a recent event at the warehouse. Betty was organizing supplies for an upcoming mission, and someone referred to her and her fellow volunteer as “the ladies” who help.
“They’re not the ladies,” another worker corrected him. “They’re family.”
It’s that sense of oneness with others that’s enriched Betty’s 14 years of volunteer work with Operation Smile, both here and abroad.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people,” she said. With a smile.
Operation Smile is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with a variety of events, including a black tie gala on Nov. 17, 2017, at The Main in Norfolk.
Interested in volunteering with Operations Smile? Go to www.operationsmile.org/act-now/volunteer to learn the many different ways you can be part of the Operation Smile team. Donations are also welcome.
Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, CPCC, ACC, a certified personal development coach and speech-language pathologist, partners with women to identify their unique gifts and make empowered choices to live a life they love. www.melissapagedeutsch.com