Going the Extra Mile for Smiles: Madagascar Nutrition Program

Volunteer Story
Held by his mother, Patricia, 14-month-old Icardi sips formula from a bottle. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Held by his mother, Patricia, 14-month-old Icardi sips formula from a bottle. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We're helping front-line health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Vololona leads a team of volunteers through a crowded neighborhood, passing worn houses before stopping to knock on a metal door.

After a moment’s pause, Patricia appears holding her son, Icardi, who’s feeding from a bottle.

With relief in her voice, she says to the volunteers, “We’re so glad to see you. This is one of the last bottles we can prepare with the baby’s formula left.”

Amid the lockdowns and restrictions, Patricia and Vololona, Icardi’s grandmother, have tried to support their family.

Vololona sells small supplies to schools and churches while Patricia makes deliveries of steels rods in the community.

But with orders not coming in, and schools and churches closed, they’ve struggled to make ends meet.

“Baby formula is expensive, but we’ve somehow always managed to buy it, since Icardi needs it to grow,” Vololona explains. “But since the lockdown, we’ve not been able to put money aside to buy formula.”

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become the reality for many patients and their families around the world as they attempt to provide for their loved ones amid country-wide lockdowns and restrictions.

With the inception of the Extra S’Miles nutrition program, our local teams in Madagascar are quite literally going the extra mile for families with hopes of minimizing the hardships caused by the pandemic.

“Shortly after the state of health emergency was declared and lockdown measures were put in place, our patients became extremely vulnerable,” said Dr. Howard Niarison, Extra S’Miles Program Coordinator. “We had to take action, even if that meant braving the virus and the miles that separate them from us.”

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

The program not only helps patients continue their nutrition treatment prescribed by medical volunteers prior to the pandemic, but also assist families living in regions where lockdown measures have made it nearly impossible to meet basic nutritional needs.

Malnutrition remains one of the most significant obstacles to receiving care due to an increased risk of complications during surgery. Without timely medical intervention, patients like Icardi can face major health issues as they are more vulnerable to illness, malnutrition and even death.

The Extra S’Miles team spanned nearly two thousand miles, traveling across the country of Madagascar to deliver nutritional packs to patients living in the regions hit hardest by the virus.

Within the packs provided to families are necessary supplies and hygiene products including food, soap, washable masks, hand sanitizer, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) and more.

Member of the Operation Smile Madagascar's Extra S'Miles nutrition program team giving ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Member of the Operation Smile Madagascar's Extra S'Miles nutrition program team giving ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

In addition to the nutritional packs, the Extra S’Miles program enabled the team to check-in on the health of patients, reassure families that Operation Smile remained devoted to their well-being despite the cancelations of medical missions and provide counsel advice on how to remain healthy until the resumption of care.

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

“It’s during difficult times that you know who your real friends are,” said José Augustin, patient coordinator for Operation Smile in Madagascar. “This health crisis is certainly a difficult time for our patients. Because we care for them, we’ll reach out to them since they can’t come to us.”

More than 530 families received the Extra S’Miles nutritional packs thanks to the dedicated team members who refused to let the pandemic prevent them from seeing smiles on the faces of patients in need.

Operation Smile Madagascar patient Coordinator Jose Augustin shares a smile with a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Operation Smile Madagascar patient Coordinator Jose Augustin shares a smile with a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

With tears in her eyes, Patricia happily accepts the nutritional pack and the six cans of baby formula the Extra S’Miles team offers her.

Raising Icardi has been a long and difficult journey for Patricia and Vololona.

Despite their unconditional love for both Icardi and his older sister, they’ve faced seemingly insurmountable barriers in their attempts to care for a child living with a cleft condition.

Icardi’s father left shortly after his premature birth, unable to handle the stress of a baby born with cleft lip.

Smile Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Smile Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Many families like Icardi's joined Operation Smile Madagascar’s nutrition program with the hope of a new beginning.

The program provides patients and families with educational support, ongoing health assessments and RUTF, a nutritive peanut paste that helps malnourished children gain enough weight to become healthy enough for safe surgery.

“Icardi is a survivor,” Vololona said. “That’s in part thanks to all the counsel and help we’ve received from Operation Smile. With this health crisis, Operation Smile has not forgotten him, nor us. We’re extremely grateful.”

Today, the Operation Smile Madagascar team remains steadfast in their commitment to the health and well-being of patients.

Through their continuous efforts to provide nutritional support, 62 patients were enrolled in the organization's nutrition program as of October 2020. Of that total, 47 children reached an optimal weight with 13 more making significant progress along their journey to becoming healthy enough to receive safe surgery.

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Icardi amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it's safe to resume our work.

Icardi's grandmother, Vololona, looks adoringly at Icardi as they pose for a picture. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.
Icardi's grandmother, Vololona, looks adoringly at Icardi as they pose for a picture. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.