Scenes of Hope and Healing: Guatemala City Surgical Program

From the Field

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Alongside with his mother, Carmelina, 10-month-old Juan Elias was examined by volunteer dentist Dr. Vilma Arteaga at screening during Operation Smile Guatemala’s May 2021 medical mission​ in Guatemala City. Juan Elias, who was later deemed healthy enough to undergo surgery, was one of 26 patients to receive comprehensive health evaluations. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

Three-year-old John Kenneth listens to anesthesiologist Dr. Emilio Peralta’s heartbeat during his own health evaluation.

John Kenneth's mom, Yesenia, left; pediatrician Dr. Samantha Wilts of the U.S., center; anesthesiology resident Dr. Ligia Atz of Guatemala and anesthesia team leader Emilio join in on the fun and laughter. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

Yesenia and her husband felt many emotions when they learned their middle child, John Kenneth, was born with a cleft lip and palate. Looking at their son after his birth, John Kenneth's mom and dad were scared, uncertain and sad.

But they also felt hopeful. 

Unlike many of the parents we meet, Yesenia knew that surgery was possible for her son. Her mother’s cousin, who had also been born with a cleft condition, received surgery from another organization.

While Yesenia connected with Operation Smile Guatemala's volunteer team soon after giving birth, John Kenneth's road to a new smile was long and full of unforeseen challenges. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

John Kenneth undergoes his cleft surgery and becomes one of 15 patients to receive life-changing care during the medical mission. Plastic surgeons Drs. Labib Samarrai of the U.S., right; Pablo Ramazzini of Guatemala, left; and operating room nurse Grecy Queche work together to ensure the highest quality of care possible. 

Years before his surgery, when John Kenneth was just 15 days old, Yesenia took a four-hour bus ride to the Operation Smile Guatemala clinic, determined to get her son care she knew he needed. Driven by love and hope, she made that same journey every month until the local staff informed her of an upcoming mission in April 2020. It wasn't until she learned that all medical missions had been cancelled due to the pandemic that Yesenia began to fear the worst.

“I was scared that they would never operate again and John Kenneth would have to live with his face like this for the rest of his life,” she said.

Happily, Yesenia’s hopes were realized and John Kenneth now has a new smile and brighter future. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

Christopher's mom, Lesli, received five ultrasounds during her pregnancy, but she didn't learn her son would be born with a cleft condition. It wasn't until the day of his birth when the doctor hesitated to let her see him that Lesli knew something was wrong. Upon seeing Christopher's smile for the first time, she was scared and shocked. With having relatives from both her mother and father's side of the family receive surgery for their cleft conditions, Lesli knew surgery was possible. But she never imagined it would affect her child. 

Christopher was born after the COVID-19 pandemic had began spreading across the country. When Lesli called Operation Smile Guatemala, the organization had already postponed upcoming medical missions and was closed to in-person visits. But the local volunteer team never gave up on Lesli or Christopher. Over the phone, they explained to Lesli how to tape his lip, which would help with feeding and preparation for future surgery. From then on, she received calls from our team every two weeks. 

Months later, when the Operation Smile Guatemala clinic reopened in March, Lesli began making the five-hour trip every 15 days to bring Christopher in for his appointments and evaluations. It was during one of these visits that she learned about this upcoming medical mission in Guatemala City. Following his comprehensive health evaluation during screening day, Christopher was scheduled for surgery. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

Training and education opportunities are vital components to increasing surgical capacity and building sustainable solutions that address the backlog in the countries we serve.

This program was volunteer plastic surgeon Dr. Labib Samarrai's 30th medical mission with the organization. Labib, left, mentors Dr. Pablo Ramazzini of Guatemala, right, during surgery as part of his credentialing process with Operation Smile. Empowering medical professionals like Pablo instills a confidence in them to practice their new skills and perform the techniques they've learned to deliver safe and effective cleft surgery in their local communities. Photo: Rohanna Mertens. 

 

Operation Smile Chief Development Officer Kendra Davenport shares a special moment with 15-month-old Gerson Eduardo in the recovery room after surgery.

“I feel like my team in Virginia Beach is tremendous and people have done a lot to educate me about what happens on a mission and what the obstacles and challenges are. But to see it up close is to really believe and understand,” Kendra said. “I think certainly the obstacles and challenges are huge, but the joy that the whole team feels when a child comes out of the operating room is palpable. For me, as a parent of a child who had to be operated on, it's a tremendous leap of faith to hand over your child for that operation.” Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

 

Justa, 11-month-old Luis Antonio's mom, sees her son for the first time in the recovery room right after his surgery. It's the determination and resilience of parents like Justa that enable and inspire us to overcome seemingly impossible challenges amid the pandemic. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Help us to continue keeping our promise 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.