A 2-Year Voyage to Care
Many of the patients we care for overcome significant financial, sociocultural, and physical barriers to care. The stories of self-sacrifice are oftentimes heartbreaking, yet the perseverance our patients and their caregivers show in the name of accessing care is consistently admirable. Every once in a while, we hear a story that leaves an indelible mark on us and reminds us that there are hundreds of thousands of patients still awaiting care that we must strive to find. The story of a young 3-year-old patient named Remy and his father from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one such story. The following was reported by Operation Smile Program Coordinator Steven Martinez.
Remy and his father did not see our mission posters. They did not see advertisements at their local church nor did they hear a radio broadcast.
They live at the northernmost tip of the Congo River with limited access to modern day lines of communication. In reality, it is incredible that they were able to hear of Operation Smile at all. Luckily, they had the good fortune of having an informed local surgeon who told them about Operation Smile’s medical mission in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Congo, in 2015. Without hesitation, Remy’s father made arrangements to travel to Kinshasa, with his then 1-year-old son in tow. Their journey would be far from simple. Located 1,500 miles from Kinshasa, Remy and his father faced a two-week trek from their hometown of Kisangani, a city located along the Congo River. No roads exist to connect Kisangani to Kinshasa, so travel must be undertaken by boat or by air between the two cities. Due to the high costs of air travel, an overcrowded river barge was the only option for the family.
Enduring brutal heat under tropical skies and combating hungry insects, Remy and his father completed 14 days of travel, arriving at the energetic capital in the summer of 2015 exhausted but determined to find the medical mission site.
Upon arrival at Clinique Ngaliema, Operation Smile’s local volunteers delivered the devastating news: the mission was over and the medical volunteers had already left.
Disappointed but not dissuaded, Remy and father made the two-week trip home to Kisangani. The trip was not for nothing, either. Patient identification is the first step for Operation Smile, and sometimes can be the most challenging element, especially in areas that lack physical infrastructure. Once identified, Operation Smile makes every attempt to keep open lines of communication with patients. Still remaining positive, Remy’s father marked his calendar for the next year, knowing the typical dates of Operation Smile’s Kinshasa medical missions. Unsure of whether they would be able to maintain consistent lines of communication with Operation Smile volunteers, a typical schedule is sometimes what most patients, like Remy and his father, rely on.
A year later, Remy and his father made the same two-week journey down the unforgiving Congo River in hopes of receiving life changing surgery.
Unfortunately, upon arrival into Kinshasa they discovered that Operation Smile would not be hosting a medical mission in the Congo that year*.
Once again, Remy and his father returned to Kisangani without treatment, sacrificing many months’ worth of savings on the journey. After trying and failing twice and collectively spending more than two months on a boat going to and from Kinshasa, anyone else would admit defeat. Not Remy's father. He again marked his calendar, for 2017 this time, and began saving his money for the long voyage with his son.
Flash forward to April 2017 and Remy and his father were yet again on an overcrowded barge, chugging its way down the mighty Congo River toward Kinshasa. Drifting into Kinshasa this time felt all too similar. Unsure of what they would find, Remy and his father made their way to the mission site. This time though, when Remy arrived at Clinique Ngaliema, he found the smiling faces of volunteers waiting to welcome patients to the medical mission.
After two long years, Remy was finally going to get the opportunity to undergo the health screening process, a requisite step to determining if he was healthy enough for surgery. Remy passed the screening and finally received his life-changing procedure.
One and a half weeks after arriving in Kinshasa, Remy’s repaired cleft lip was healing beautifully. He and his father began preparations for the journey back to Kisangani, but this time Remy would return with a new smile and a renewed sense of hope. Asking his father about the entire experience, his response was not filled with ire or angst at the fact that they had to sacrifice so much to make the previous two journeys. Instead, he expressed surprise and gratitude for the quality of care his son received, the shelter and food for their stay in Kinshasa, and provisions for their journey home – all standard practices at Operation Smile’s medical missions worldwide. As his father reflected on how surgery would impact Remy’s future, he mentioned that Remy had not yet attended preschool because of the way he was treated for having a cleft lip. This is not surprising either; many patients suffering from cleft conditions endure bullying and social isolation. With the fear of repercussion for his cleft lip erased, his father assured us, with an utter sigh of relief, that upon return to Kisangani, Remy would be going to preschool.
Surgery is transformative in many ways, but the opportunities it opens for patients are perhaps the most powerful and enduring.
* Editor’s Note: Operation Smile strives to provide the safest possible environment during our medical missions for our patients and volunteers alike. We undertake rigorous review of our mission sites and keep in continuous contact with our local offices to ensure the safest possible conditions. In 2016, together with our colleagues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we made the difficult decision to suspend our programmatic activity in the country due to security concerns. This decision was made after very careful deliberation. Our ability to remain fluid and adaptive has been the hallmark of our success in operating in the hardest-to-reach areas of the world and we make every attempt to facilitate our programs so that patients in need can access life-saving care. Our return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2017 is a marked tribute to that.