July 14, 2014
Ryan Cody, U-Voice Student Volunteer
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I was standing in the middle of a group of energetic kids blowing bubbles while they jumped up and clapped their hands around me, trying to pop the bubbles before they disappeared. In all that chaos, my eyes kept going to a young mother holding a boy on the outskirts of the hospital. I could tell the two were feeling left out.
She was standing holding her son, patiently waiting for his name to be called. Something about their presence was unique, so I walked closer and made eye contact with the mother who gave me a friendly smile. For me, a smile is the best form of communication. We began talking in Spanish, and Leslie told me her life story.
She spoke fast, but I paid close attention to her words and expressions, trying to keep up with my rusty Spanish. Leslie Rodriguez is a 22-year-old mother of three children in Lima, Peru. She had her first child when she was just 16 years old, and her youngest, 10-month-old Thiagu was born with a cleft. After Thiago was born, her husband left her – unable to cope with the child’s facial deformity. Leslie explained to me that her husband became extremely angry with her when Thiago was born. He was sure that the cleft was a bad omen.
Despite the difficult year, Leslie has never given up in her determination to help Thiagu. While looking for healthcare options for his bilateral cleft lip, her doctor recommended Operation Smile's international clinic in Lima. She arrived at 5 a.m. this morning, hopeful that her son's life might take a turn for the better. Leslie talked about how life is full of ups and downs, but it's always important to stay calm and have hope during times of trouble and help others around you. This was exactly what she was doing for her son, Thiagu.
I felt so connected to Thaigo through just his facial and body language. He is a bright boy, happy, confident and relaxed. Unlike most of the other children, Thiago never cried – except, of course, when getting his blood drawn – and maintained a positive expression throughout the day. I followed him through all of the screening stations, taking pictures and talking to Leslie along the way. After they completed the screening process, we parted ways. I knew that I would see them again.
I hadn’t seen Leslie or Thiago since the first day of screening until I heard my name called in a faint, familiar voice, “Ryan?” I turned around and saw Leslie, holding little Thiago in her arms. Right away, I ran over and gave Leslie a big hug y “beso” on the cheek. Thiagu reached out his hand, and I have him a hug and kiss too. I sat down on their small bed and talked with Leslie for a while. She had a number of questions to ask about the surgery that Thaigo would undergo shortly. She spoke quickly, with a slight tremble in her voice. I did my best to answer, being as honest, sensitive, and optimistic as I could. She explained that she was “una mescla de emocionada y nerviosa,” extremely nervous. For a 22-year-old mother, she remained composed, but I could sense fear growing inside of her.
Finally, a nurse came into the room and called for Thiago – it was his turn to go into the OR. Leslie asked me to stay with her son throughout the entire procedure, so I picked up Thiagu and carried him into the OR. As I was leaving, I saw Leslie tear up, but I knew she trusted me and she trusted the Operation Smile volunteer medical team. When we arrived in Operating Room #3, Thiago’s eyes brightened with curiosity. When most small children are taken away from their mothers, they cry until they are sedated. However, Thiago sat on the bed, looking around the room, remaining utterly calm.
From start to finish, I had the opportunity to observe Thiago’s surgery. Blas Dominguez, a plastic surgeon from Mexico successfully completed the operation in under one hour. Dr. Dominguez explained to me that Thiago’s case was very unique because of Thiago’s intact palate. Most children with a bilateral cleft lip also have a cleft in their palate, he told me.
In less than one hour, Thiago’s appearance was completely changed. After surgery, I brought Thiago into the recovery room where he slept peacefully until I retrieved Leslie from the lobby. When she saw me smile, she beamed with relief and happiness. As we walked into the recovery room, she explained how she was worried the entire time Thiago was gone. It was the first time anyone in her family had ever had surgery.
We opened the door to the recovery room and I will never forget Leslie’s face when she was her son for the first time after surgery – she was beaming, smiling and tearing up at how beautiful her son is. I explained to her that his lip was swollen, and it would look even better in a few days.
The next day when I arrived at the hospital, I went directly to the post-op to see Leslie holding Thiago in her arms who was still fast asleep. As I began talking to her, he opened his eyes. I was the first person he saw. Without hesitation, he reached out his hand and Leslie passed him into my arms. As I was holding Thiago, I felt a strong connection, one that I hadn’t felt since I held my youngest brother was born.
When it was time for them to leave the hospital, I passed Thiago back to Leslie and Thiago started to cry. It was the first time I saw him cry since he was poked by the blood work needle during screening.
I felt uneasy knowing that I might never see them again. Thiago reached out his hand, as if he wanted to jump into my arms again, but it was time for them to be discharged. I gave Thiago one last “beso” on the forehead and hugged Leslie goodbye. As Leslie walked away, Thiagu and I didn’t break eye contact . Right before they turned the corner, Thiagu gave me the most beautiful smile, one that I will never forget.
I’ll never know if this was the first smile of Thiago's new life, but I know that he will now be able to smile to his heart’s content. This week, Operación Sonrisa helped 112 children and young adults achieve health and happiness. I believe that health and happiness are the two most important qualities in life.
In just one week, I felt compelled to stay fully involved with Operation Smile for the rest of my life. I watched the impact the volunteers have on the children here in Lima, but I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on my life. In the future, if I can help people smile and be healthy with Operation Smile, I feel that I will have fulfilled my duty on this earth.
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