A few weeks ago I had one of the most impacting experiences yet; and that’s saying a lot considering all that I’ve seen and done here. A group of volunteers from all over came to Centro Médico in La Romana for a week long medical mission. Many of them were local, from Santo Domingo, while others were from the United States. Despite language and cultural differences, they all came together to accomplish the same thing. Each year more than 200,000 children are born with a cleft lip and/or palate. Not only does this birth defect carry with it significant cosmetic adversities, but it often results in ear diseases, dental problems, speech development issues and difficulty obtaining proper nutrition. 
Operación Sonrisa started on a Saturday when more than 60 children were screened for surgery. I arrived at 7:30 a.m. to a waiting room full of children and their parents, overflowing to the parking lot. I’ve seen pictures of children with cleft lips and palates, but actually meeting them was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Many had significant deformities, but all I could think about was that they were beautiful, happy children.
The screening was a scene of organized chaos. Each child had to go through about 8 different stations, which included legal documents, speech therapy and a pediatrician. These families had traveled from all over the country and waited for months, some even years, for this day. The screening ended around 6 p.m. and everyone was exhausted, including the children. However, the day was not over for the mission team, who proceeded to a conference room to develop a schedule for the week. Unfortunately, it was impossible to operate on all of the children with 3 operating rooms and 5 days. However those that would not be operated on during this mission would be given first priority for the next one. When the schedule was complete, the parents were called and told if and when to come in for the operation.
I arrived Monday morning expecting to be in a conference room helping out with administrative needs separate from the action. However, this was not the case. The team was given a large hallway area to serve as an office, as well as the surgery waiting room. Therese, the team’s child life specialist, made the area kid friendly with toys, games and decorations. I ended up spending most of my time with her, which was wonderful. Basically, our role was to make the children feel as comfortable as possible before heading into surgery. It is imperative to develop a feeling of trust and comfort between you and each child, so that when they leave their parents for the operating room they feel more at ease. For the most part this was developed simply by playing with them. For the older children, we used Therese’s hospital toys to explain to them what was about to happen in a way that they could understand. Something as simple as a child putting a miniature anesthesia mask on a doll helps them to be more relaxed when it is being done to them.
Down the hall were two large connected rooms, serving for pre and post-op. Filled with beds, the kids and one parent or guardian came and stayed at the hospital the nights before and after their surgery. They did about 12 surgeries each day, so most days there were about 24 children, along with their parent, staying in these two rooms. The IV bags hung on clothes hangers attached to the ceiling panels. It was definitely not the type of hospital room I was used to, but it worked. I spent a lot of time in that room, simply checking in with children and parents. There were a few babies who I didn’t even recognize in post-op because they looked so different. On two different occasions, I found myself talking to a mom who seemed to know me, and then told me that I had spent a lot of time talking to them on Saturday. Upon looking at their file with an identification photo, I knew exactly which child they were. The difference was remarkable.
I was also struck by how simple most of these surgeries were. Although I never observed an operation, I spent time talking to the surgeons, who told me that this procedure was nothing for them. It’s amazing to think that so many children are living with significant deformities, yet they are so easy to fix.
By far, my favorite part of the week was each morning seeing the group from yesterday’s surgeries leave to go home. I found myself tearing up saying good-bye to many of the parents and children I had developed relationships with. It was as simple as talking to them, learning their story and supporting them as they went through the process. Their appreciation was unlike any I’ve experienced. One mom said to me“ Te quiero mucho.” “I love you very much,” which is exactly how I felt about many of the children and families. They left with a hug, kiss and a big smile on their face.
For more information about Operation Smile please visit: http://www.operationsmile.org/.