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

July 25, 2014

Turned Away from Surgery, Not from Hope

Monica Huett , Operation Smile Staff

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In the heat of Mekelle, Ethiopia, I saw a sea of faces full of hope. It was screening day of my first medical mission. But the faces that stood out to me were those of the smallest patients. I was helping the volunteers take pictures of each child for their medical file. I remember being almost scared to touch these tiny babies to help position them. Some were so fragile they looked like they would break.

I am immersed in the images and stories of Operation Smile every day. As the web developer, I post many of the pictures and articles you read here. But nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience on this Operation Smile medical mission to Mekelle. It touched my heart and gave me a new appreciation for the stories we share.

As I watched a mom cradle her infant, I noticed there were many other tiny, malnourished babies with cleft lip and cleft palate. But at the same time, I saw other babies with chubby little thighs and big, sweet cheeks. I wondered why there was such a difference between these babies who suffered from similar medical conditions. How were some able to thrive when others looked like they were barely surviving?

Once the medical screening process was complete, I stood with Speech Pathologist Candace Meyers explaining to the mothers of the small babies that they would not receive surgery during this medical mission because it would be unsafe for the malnourished babies.

At most medical missions, there are a number of families who face this heart-breaking reality. Surgery is not the safest option at the time for their child. But even without surgery, Operation Smile is committed to helping these children in any way they can. We knew we had to help these young mothers struggling to nourish their babies.

Candace had an idea. We gathered all the mothers and their babies together in a circle, and through a translator, she explained why their babies were not eligible for surgery. She told them we wanted to help them get their babies healthy and strong. What happened next was remarkable. She ended up facilitating a sort of group therapy session.

These mothers were all breastfeeding their babies for nourishment since they were still so young – something that is very difficult for children who suffer from cleft lip or cleft palate. Some of the moms had clearly found a way to make it work since their babies looked so healthy. Candace encouraged the mothers of the healthy babies to help the other mothers. They shared their tips for breastfeeding their own baby. Candace and I could have told these mothers our advice, but it wouldn’t have been as helpful. What works in the U.S., wouldn’t have been an option for these women who live with no running water and limited resources.

We also discussed what kind of milk was available to these families. We encouraged them to feed their babies goat’s milk with some oil added in to give the baby another source of fat.

You should have seen the fathers’ faces when they heard this advice. Up until this point, they had been on the fringes of our conversation unsure of how they could help. Their eyes lit up, and these dads who had watched their infants struggling to breastfeed since birth jumped into action. They went out immediately to find what their baby needed to survive.

Our hope is that these babies will continue to grow strong and healthy. And the next time Operation Smile comes back, we can give them a chance at life with a new smile.

I will never look at the pictures on Operation Smile’s website the same way. I watched these families who had so little, and yet were so happy. I will always be grateful to the people of Mekelle and Operation Smile for giving me an opportunity to be part of a beautiful, life-changing experience.

Tags:   From the Field, Our Team, Patient Stories, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Ethiopia