A Nursing Life Honored: Q&A with Norrie Oelkers

Volunteer Story
Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Longtime Operation Smile clinical coordinator Norrie Oelkers walks Yoxana into the operating room during a 2015 medical mission to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

As one of Operation Smile’s most dedicated and longest-tenured volunteer nurses, Norrie Oelkers has served on 42 international medical missions over the past 21 years.

Serving primarily as a clinical coordinator, the head nurse in charge of running the medical aspects of a mission, Norrie has touched the lives of thousands of patients and their family members, as well as hundreds more medical professionals around the world. Her selfless commitment to our patients has remained steadfast over the years, and the international community has taken note.

As part of the United Nations’ second annual celebration of International Nurses Day, Norrie was selected by Nurses With Global Impact to be honored at U.N. headquarters in New York on May 11, 2018 (International Nurses Day was May 12, 2018).

“Norrie brings the utmost compassion and the deepest level of determination to her work,” said Linda Highfield, Chair of the Operation Smile Nursing Council. “She makes sure to create a personal connection with every patient and family member who comes through the doors of the operating room and stops at nothing to make sure that both the children and the team will be safe.

“She engages people, and they become engaged because of her enthusiasm and her love of what she’s doing, whether it’s her family or being a clinical coordinator on a mission.”

And Norrie doesn’t stop there. She is also a prolific fundraiser for Operation Smile as the co-chair of the organization’s New Jersey chapter, inspiring her local community to join her in supporting the volunteer-driven work that’s so dear to her heart.

We recently caught up with Norrie to learn more about her service to Operation Smile and how she’s made it her personal mission to bring hope and healing to families affected by cleft around the world.

Photo: Marc Ascher.
Linda Highfield, Chair of the Operation Smile Nursing Council, said, “(Norrie) makes sure to create a personal connection with every patient and family member who comes through the doors of the operating room and stops at nothing to make sure that both the children and the team will be safe.” Photo: Marc Ascher.

Q: How did you become involved with Operation Smile?

A: “My son, Ryan, was responsible for introducing me to their work and his constant encouragement compelled me to apply for admission to be an Operation Smile volunteer. Twenty-two years ago when Ryan was in high school, he was part of his school’s Operation Smile club, where he learned about their work and, with his classmates, raised money to pay for individual surgeries. At Villanova University, Ryan met Kristie Magee (now Porcaro, Operation Smile Senior Vice President of Global Philanthropy), daughter of Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee (Operation Smile Co-Founders). After she learned that I was a practicing nurse, Kristie urged Ryan to get me to volunteer to participate on an Operation Smile medical mission. Ryan mentioned this to me, and I quickly said that we didn’t do cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries at my hospital – it was not my specialty. Ryan continued to call me daily to tell me that I would not be a scrub nurse, but that I would be a circulating nurse, and I would be sharing my knowledge and skill with the local nurses in each country as well. After several weeks, I finally agreed to apply for admission to be an Operation Smile medical volunteer, and soon after, I was accepted!

Q: Your first medical mission was to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in 1997. What was that experience like for you?

A: “It’s difficult to express the feeling I had on my first mission – I had volunteered my entire adult life with many charities … but I never experienced anything like an Operation Smile medical mission. I immediately felt like I was part of something bigger and more important than anything I had ever experienced. I felt I was doing what I was called to do and I loved being part of such a vital team of volunteers.

“In the first three days of that mission, we screened more than 300 children. Hundreds of parents and grandparents traveled for days to reach our hospital. They traveled by bus, boat and many walked miles to the Operation Smile site, believing it was their only hope to get their children the surgery they needed – to give them a better shot at leading normal, happy and healthy lives. During that mission, I saw firsthand the immense relief and gratitude parents of the children we operated on felt upon seeing their children post-surgery, and the effect was life-changing for me.

“At the same time, the saddest part of our surgical schedule was that we had to turn away 150 children since we only had five days to perform surgery – and that was with our team working up to 18 hours a day. We were thrilled to complete almost 150 surgeries, but it was heartbreaking to see a parent cry when their child was not chosen. That’s why we always commit to return, year after year.”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot
Norrie checks a patient file with anesthesiologist Dr. Clive Duke of the United Kingdom at a medical mission to Vietnam in 2014. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Q: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your volunteer work for Operation Smile?

A: “For me, the one of the most fulfilling things about being a clinical coordinator are the opportunities I’ve had to share my skills and knowledge with my fellow nurses from around the world. Training and education is such an important part of Operation Smile’s mission, and being able to mentor those who are the most hands-on when it comes to patient care and patient safety means the world to me.

“The ability to apply my training as a nurse to a mission that is so critical has been a blessing. My husband and family have always been very supportive of my desire to be a part of Operation Smile. They understand how much it means to me – how fulfilling and sustaining it is for me.

“I love being a nurse because the very spirit of nursing is to deliver aid and care to those in need. My work with Operation Smile has been an extension of the work I was trained to do as a nurse, but in retrospect, it accounts for some of the most memorable work I have ever done and of which I am proudest. Each time I return home after participating in a mission, I continue to think of all the children we have helped and those we left behind. With that in mind, I volunteer as the co-chair for Operation Smile’s New Jersey chapter. Our goal is to raise awareness about Operation Smile and help fund future missions. We have fundraising events every year, and since 2002, our chapter committee has raised almost $2,000,000!        

“I feel privileged to have participated in every Operation Smile mission I have been asked to join and I believe with all my heart that I have benefitted personally from my engagement. As Gandhi said, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the services of others.’ We all have some skill or set of skills we can use to do more for others. Operation Smile helped me learn about myself and life while enabling me to do what I love most – nursing.” 

Norrie shares a smile with a young patient during Operation Smile's 2010 earthquake relief mission in Haiti. Operation Smile photo.

Q: You’ve volunteered in 23 countries and traveled the world many times over in service of Operation Smile. Besides your first mission, what other missions stands out to you after 21 years?

A: “I have been in the poorest countries in the world and have worked the hardest in my life, and I will continue to help with the missions. I was part of a surgical relief team that went to Haiti after the Earthquake in 2010. Operation Smile was the first medical team to arrive and we joined Partners in Health to operate on hundreds of people who had lost limbs, were crushed in debris and needed amputations and skins grafts to create new skin flaps to allow future prosthesis to be attached to arms and legs. We slept in tents, ate fresh goat meat every day and we were thankful for a bucket of water every day to wash our faces. It was my hardest mission ever, but I loved being there for the people of Haiti. I still pray for every child or mom and dad that I cared for those two weeks that I was there and they remain in my heart.

“I have been fortunate enough to have my husband, Rich, join me on two missions where he volunteered to help with medical records and also help transport children into the OR. He loved being a part of the team and was an immense help. I was also blessed to have my two daughters join me on a mission for the 25th Anniversary of Operation Smile to Fortaleza, Brazil. Our oldest daughter, Lauren, is a nurse practitioner and she worked as a pre- and post-op nurse on the mission, while our youngest daughter, Kerry, served as a patient imaging technician, the photographer on the mission who takes pictures of the children during the screening process and in the OR before and after their surgeries.”

Q: What does it mean to you to be honored by Nurses With Global Impact at the headquarters of the United Nations?

A: “I feel honored and humbled to receive this award along with my fellow nominees. I accept it on behalf of all of my fellow Operation Smile nurses who have dedicated their lives to helping children throughout the world to have a chance to live a normal life. We truly work together to change children’s lives, one smile at a time!”

Photo: Marc Ascher.
Norrie and medical records volunteer Donna Drake of the United States at a 2016 Operation Smile medical mission to Callao, Peru. Photo: Marc Ascher.