A Rare Compassion: Q&A with Nurse Christine Loeffler

Volunteer Story
Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler treats a young patient during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.
Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler treats a young patient during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.

Like so many of Operation Smile’s devoted and passionate volunteer nurses, Christine Loeffler never looked back after experiencing her first medical mission.  

Since beginning her journey with Operation Smile in 2011, Christine has been on 11 medical missions to various countries, volunteering her time, knowledge and skill in order to provide people affected by cleft conditions with life-saving surgical care. After growing up in a small town in Alaska, she said that she never imagined that she would be crossing cultural divides to help families from all over the world.

Even at a young age, Christine was drawn to the medical field. Growing up with her chronically ill father exposed her to a life filled with in-home nurses, doctor visits and 911 calls. She aspired to find a career that allowed her to help people in the same way that others had helped her father. This inspired her to become a nurse.

But while Christine loved her job, she still felt like something was missing from her life.  

“I said a pleading prayer to God one night: ‘I will do anything with my life that you want me to do, just tell me what to do. Oh, and can I know by tomorrow?’

“The very next morning, I had an email from Operation Smile asking me if I wanted to join their team in Nicaragua.”

A few weeks later, she departed her home in California to serve on her first mission.

For seven years, she has not only witnessed the incredible work Operation Smile has accomplished, but has been a driving force behind the organization’s continued success.

We recently sat down with Christine to learn more about her work surrounding the training of local nurses and her firsthand experience at a medical mission in Mozambique.

A young patient plays with Christine Loeffler, an Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse, during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.
A young patient plays with Christine Loeffler, an Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse, during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.

Q: What inspired you to become an Operation Smile volunteer?

A: “I think I have always had a passion for understanding the world better and have always felt a strong need to serve those who are underserved. I knew another nurse who worked with Operation Smile and when she told me about the incredible experiences she had, I knew this was the organization for me.” 

Q: You were on our first Mozambique mission in four years. What was that mission experience like?

A: “Oh! It was fantastic. I knew going in, that since we had not been there in four years, that this was a really important mission in gaining trust with our patients and the hospital staff we worked with. I had heard that some people were too scared to come to our mission site for surgery. At the end of the week, a speech was given on behalf of all of the families who received surgery. They said, ‘We are so thankful for you changing our lives that we promise to go back to our villages and spread the word so others may receive this gift.’” 

Q: We have wonderful photos of you with sisters Sofiana and Fousia from the Mozambique mission. What did it mean to you to help those girls through their surgical experiences?

A: “Those two sisters were so cute! We had a ton of fun in pre-op blowing bubbles, coloring and playing games. It means a lot to me to have simply helped them to not be scared. We actually skipped the hallways holding hands and singing because Sofiana was so excited to go!” 

Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler walks with Sofiana toward the operating room during  the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.
Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler walks with Sofiana toward the operating room during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.

Q: Why do you feel Operation Smile’s work is so critical? 

A: “There is an enormous lack of surgical care in the countries Operation Smile works in. For instance, in Mozambique, we were told by the ministry of health that there were only two surgeons in the entire country who were dedicated to cleft repairs. And there are just too many babies out there who have this problem. Operation Smile is also at the forefront of research to figure out why this happens and how we can prevent it. Operation Smile is committed to tackling the problem from both ends and not just being a bandage fix.” 

Q: Have you been a part of in-country training and education? Why is it important to build the skills of local health workers where we work? 

A: “I have had the privilege of helping to teach local nurses pre and post op care. Once they individually develop the skills and confidence, we can eventually have their own in-country team sustain a cleft program. 

“I think families really benefit from this as they get great clinical care while still satisfying their cultural needs. It’s a beautiful thing to learn from one another.” 

Q: What drives you to continue to serve patients and families affected by cleft through Operation Smile?

A: “It’s simple. There are so many more people to help. I am so proud to be a part of Operation Smile, which is committed to helping not just a select few, but everyone. Also, we really have fun while we do it!”

Q: What would you say to someone who’s knows very little about Operation Smile or is considering becoming a supporter?

A: “I would say, you have no idea what a relatively short surgery can do to impact a life. I will never forget a moment in Malawi when we had a room full of pre-op patients suddenly interrupt the space with joyful song, dance and laughter. Later, I asked one of the local nurses what they were singing. They sang, ’We are happy when things like this happen because it is rare when they happen.’ 

“Things like this really are rare. Opportunity is rare. Help is rare. Love and kindness are becoming rare. When you support Operation Smile, you have the chance to give something tangibly meaningful and rare to this world.”

Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler, center, works with fellow volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Solmaz Shahi of Sweden to conduct a patient's comprehensive health evaluation during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Operation Smile volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Christine Loeffler, center, works with fellow volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Solmaz Shahi of Sweden to conduct a patient's comprehensive health evaluation during the July 2018 medical mission in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.