Building the Capacity to Heal

Volunteer Story
Volunteer surgeon Dr. Tilinde Chokotho speaks with 12-year-old Belita before her surgery during Operation Smile's 2019 mission to Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Volunteer surgeon Dr. Tilinde Chokotho speaks with 12-year-old Belita before her surgery during Operation Smile's 2019 mission to Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Through the actions of dedicated and loyal volunteers who strive to make an impact, Operation Smile Malawi’s goal of increasing local surgical capacity remains at the core of its mission.

Volunteer surgeon Dr. Tilinde Chokotho was first introduced to Operation Smile Malawi during his residency in South Africa. And even after years of collaborating with volunteer medical teams from countries all around the world, Tilinde remains just as passionate about missions in Malawi being driven forward by local volunteers.

And that’s exactly what he witnessed during a 2018 medical mission held in Blantyre, Malawi.

“It is very important and quite significant to have such a strong representation,” Tilinde said. “It means that in the future, we could be pretty much self-sufficient. We could still have a few overseas volunteers to support, but, basically, it should be Malawians treating Malawians.”

Operation Smile invests in increasing the surgical capacity of low- and middle-income countries like Malawi so that it can serve and treat more people living with cleft conditions. As a local foundation, Operation Smile Malawi has worked to encourage and educate local surgeons, doctors and nurses with nearly 50 percent of Malawian volunteers.

Operating room nurse Seleman Badrlie has only been volunteering with Operation Smile since 2016, but he has already transformed many lives through attending 11 medical missions.  

After finishing a mission in neighboring Mozambique, Seleman joined the medical team in Blantyre to help create even more smiles. Back-to-back missions can be exhausting experiences, but for Seleman, it’s the right thing to do for the patients who are waiting.

“I felt like my help and my dedication to the team would be very important. Whatever I have to give to Operation Smile in order to bring smiles to people is OK with me,” Seleman said.

While Seleman is committed to the idea of Malawians driving the Malawi missions, he hopes to continue working with volunteers from around the world.

“It’s important to work on Malawian missions because it helps me gain skills,” he said. “I am always involved in working with the international volunteers, which is so helpful and allows me to learn valuable skills.”

As an organization with a multidisciplinary approach to care, Operation Smile values its extensive community of volunteers who contribute a wide array of skill sets and professions that are vital to improving the health and dignity of people around the world.

Child life specialists are an integral part of that community.  

Operation Smile volunteer psychosocial practitioner Cathy Nchamba, left, and volunteer surgeon Dr. Stefan Rawlins of South Africa meet with 79-year-old Flyness before her cleft surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Operation Smile volunteer psychosocial practitioner Cathy Nchamba, left, and volunteer surgeon Dr. Stefan Rawlins of South Africa meet with 79-year-old Flyness before her cleft surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Cathy Nchamba works as psychosocial practitioner in Malawi and volunteers her skills to assist with the child life team. It was through an awareness campaign that she had first heard about Operation Smile and learned how it strives to deliver exceptional surgery to people where it’s needed most.  

As pediatric health care professionals, child life specialists help patients and their families understand and cope with the hospital experience. Through therapeutic play and activities, child life specialists ease patients’ fears and anxieties during the mission, helping comfort and soothe them during their time with Operation Smile.

But the event that cemented Cathy’s interest in the organization’s mission was when the Operation Smile Malawi team visited her office.

“They came to our offices to find out if we had any volunteers who could offer their services. I attended my first mission last year, and the program was successful, which was why they invited me back this year,” Cathy said.

For Cathy, dedicating her time to attending missions and seeing the lasting impact that she has been able to make for children and their families motivates her to keep going.

“I have enjoyed my experience very much. I actually want to help the parents, as well as the children, to take away their fears: to say to them that this is part of life and everything is going to be OK and then help them transition from fear to hope and peace.”

When it comes to the question of enhancing skills, increasing capacity and building the local foundation, Cathy makes it clear that it’s a pressing concern.

“It’s actually really important because the mindset of many people is that other people have to come to help us, and yet, we are the very people who live with our fellow Malawians here,” Cathy said.

Cathy said that being local allows for a special understanding of the country’s beliefs and cultures, which can be useful in a mission context. She hopes to encourage the youth of Malawi to get involved and volunteer with Operation Smile Malawi so that they, too, can make a life-changing impact.

Through their partnership, Operation Smile U.K. and Operation Smile Malawi work collaboratively to reach a goal of clearing the backlog of patients who need cleft lip and cleft palate surgery in Malawi.

For Tilinde, the goal is possible. And he feels that a key element in achieving it is through increasing local capacity.

“It’s not just about doing the cleft repairs; comprehensive care is the ultimate goal,” he said. “We need training, not just for surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists, but other specialties like speech therapy.”

Anesthesiologists Drs. Paul Phiri of Malawi, top left; Godfrey Phiri of Malawi, top center; surgeon Dr. Mark Solomon of Kenya, top right; clinical coordinator trainee Courtney Allen of Australia, bottom left; and child life specialist Nicole Zina of the U.K., bottom right, pose with a patient before surgery during Operation Smile's 2018 medical mission in Blantyre, Malawi. Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Anesthesiologists Drs. Paul Phiri of Malawi, top left; Godfrey Phiri of Malawi, top center; surgeon Dr. Mark Solomon of Kenya, top right; clinical coordinator trainee Courtney Allen of Australia, bottom left; and child life specialist Nicole Zina of the U.K., bottom right, pose with a patient before surgery during Operation Smile's 2018 medical mission in Blantyre, Malawi. Photo: Jasmin Shah.