Operation Smile is a charity organization for children – donate non profit
Operation Smile is a charity organization for children – donate non profit

August 5, 2014

The Passion of Volunteerism

Katie Downtain, Operation Smile Staff

comments | comment now

I once heard an Operation Smile volunteer say that going on a medical mission makes your world bigger and smaller at the same time. I never quite understood what he meant until I went on my first Operation Smile medical mission. Not only did it open up my eyes to a whole new world, but I also found a common connection with my new friends. And I found real inspiration in the wonderful people who are Operation Smile volunteers.

Nothing could have prepared me for the excitement of screening day in the Dominican Republic. As I stepped off the bus on that early morning in Santo Domingo, I was nervous and anxious. Looking past the iron gates into the large park, I was amazed to see the giant crowd. There were rows and rows of people lined up, all patiently waiting to meet us.

That’s when I got my first glimpse into how the amazing team of Operation Smile volunteers works together. We quickly set up stations in several large pavilions, popping up tables and putting signs up to direct patients from one station to the next. I was in charge of taking each child’s picture which would be attached to their chart. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I found a way to communicate with the families with a smile or a reassuring pat on the back.

In the station next to me, Patient Imaging Technicians (PITs) took more detailed pictures of each child’s face, mouth and lips. Some of the kids were scared of all the pictures and cameras. I stood and watched as one PIT sang to each child as she took their pictures to soothe them.

There was something so special about all the volunteers who surrounded me that day. Despite the daunting job of screening more than 100 patients, there was never a feeling of being rushed. Each volunteer took time to connect and comfort each child and family. I was amazed at the personal attention each family received. And in turn, they were so patient and grateful for Operation Smile.

I spent some time talking to Clinical Coordinator Linda Highfield who embodies what makes an Operation Smile volunteer so unique. She has been on more than 50 medical missions. She is so deeply committed to helping children through Operation Smile, that she sacrifices her time several times a year. There were volunteers from more than a dozen countries on our Dominican Republic medical mission. Despite our different backgrounds, we formed as a cohesive unit, providing great care, comfort and created more than 100 new smiles during our week together.

On surgery day, I saw this well-oiled machine of volunteers in their element. I followed 3-year-old Violet through the whole process. I witnessed the overwhelming love and care of our dedicated medical volunteers. I first met Violet and her mom in the waiting area. She was there for a nose revision surgery after receiving a lip repair when she was younger.

Volunteers work hard to make sure the kids are having fun during all of the waiting before surgery. I usually think of a hospital as a pretty depressing place. But today, there was so much joy surrounding us wherever we went. It really was the happiest hospital I had ever seen.

When the time came to take Violet to surgery, I promised her mother I would stay with her the entire time. I carried her into the operating room and held her as she cried. That was the hardest moment for me. The skilled medical volunteers jumped into action caring for Violet and preparing her for surgery. I watched in amazement as her surgeon carefully operated on her little face.

I took Violet to the recovery room and met some truly wonderful nurses there. This team was so efficient and yet so attentive. From the moment she arrived, the nurses were checking Violet and making sure she wasn’t in any pain. And once she woke up, they soothed her with such gentleness and care.

As I delivered Violet back to her mother and placed her in her arms, I couldn’t help but feel like I was representing this entire team of remarkable volunteers. Even though I couldn’t speak the language, that action was my way of saying, “Violet is in good hands.”

Before I went to the Dominican Republic I remember wondering how I would be able to contribute. I’m not a doctor or a translator. But becoming a part of the Operation Smile volunteer team really helped me find my place. This group took care of me with the same kindness and attention they give our young patients. I feel like the experience of meeting volunteers from so many different places opened my eyes to how large our world is, but despite that, we are all very similar. We comfort people in the same way, we show assurance to people with a smile or pat on the back, and even without being able to physically speak to the kids I met, I realized I’m really very similar to them. That makes my world feel smaller.

Tags:   Our Blog, From the Field, Our Team, Latin America & Caribbean