November 15, 2013
Vanessa Konzelmann , Student volunteer
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My parents dropped me off at Newark Liberty International Airport with my luggage, donations and a racing mind.
I was left sitting all alone in the terminal, waiting to board my plane for my first medical mission with Operation Smile when I started to feel like I was way in over my head. But just as I was feeling overwhelmed, I immediately felt a sense of calm by thinking about the lives I would see changed forever and all the beautiful smiles I would experience over the next 10 days.
When I arrived at the screening site in Rio de Janeiro, I fully realized the importance of our mission. More than 100 people sat patiently waiting to be examined. These people had been waiting far longer than just one morning – they had been waiting for this day their entire lives.
Local volunteers brought musical instruments and costumes to entertain the crowd. Children and adults alike joined in singing and dancing, alleviating a little bit of the stress of the day before seeing the doctors. My mission partner and I sat next to the waiting area with a bag of toys, coloring books and stickers. Sure enough, kids of all ages gravitated toward us.
We didn’t have to speak the same language to understand one another. We just enjoyed each other’s company as we chose pages to color and stickers to wear.
I looked up from the group and saw a little girl with a bilateral cleft lip sitting quietly with her mother in the waiting area, away from the other kids. I wasn’t the only one to notice her. A group of local volunteers encouraged her to join our circle. She shyly came over, and my mission partner and I gave her a coloring page and some crayons.
The local volunteers spoke Portuguese to her in what sounded like an encouraging, soothing way. She suddenly burst into an enormous smile, and everyone clapped and smiled with her. In that moment, I realized this surgery meant much more for this little girl than just a basic medical procedure – it meant having a chance at a new life.
“Nome?” I asked the little girl. “Ana Paula” a local volunteer answered for her.
We spent the rest of screening with little ones like Ana, playing and smiling together. When surgery week started, time began to pass even faster than before. Toward the end of surgery week, my student sponsor Josh told us that Ana Paula would be receiving a surgery the next day. I learned that Ana’s mother was in her early twenties and had four other young children at home, but when she heard of Operation Smile’s medical mission, she had traveled with Ana for hours to get to Rio, determined not to miss an opportunity to give Ana a chance at a better life.
I was able to walk with Ana to the operation room and observe all four hours of her intricate reconstruction. I barely recognized the little girl who came out of surgery, once struggling with an upper lip morphed and twisted in an unlivable fashion, now able to go eat and talk normally, and smile for the first time in her life without being self-conscious.
I went outside to call her mother in to see her. This characteristically stoic woman, erupted into an explosion of praise upon seeing her daughter. She thanked the surgeons and volunteers who had forever changed her daughter’s life.
Being able to share in that moment touched my heart in a way that I will never forget. Working alongside doctors, observing surgeons in action, and being a student member of a volunteer medical team in the field intensified my passion for a future career in medicine.
I would never have been able to gain such insight and experience without Operation Smile. I saw first-hand the difference that Operation Smile makes around the world and, although I am still a high school student, I realized that no matter how young a person is, we can work together to change lives forever.
Tags: Our Blog, Student Stories, From the Field, Student Programs, Latin America & Carribean