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Volunteer Story Global

Celebrating National Nurses Month: The Essential Roles of Operation Smile Nurses

May is National Nurses Month in the United States, a time to recognize the dedication and hard work exemplified by outstanding nurses.

Post-anesthesia care unit nurse Patricia Meireles tends to a young patient at an Operation Smile surgical program to Fortaleza, Brazil. Photo: Paulo Fabre.

One may not think that a surgical program site and an auto mechanic’s shop would have much – if anything at all – in common.

That is unless you’re Jeanne Kille, an Operation Smile volunteer operating room nurse.

“Growing up, my dad was an auto mechanic, so a ‘well-oiled machine’ was something our family could all relate to,” said Jeanne, who lives and works in Utah. “On my last medical mission, I was a Clinical Coordinator in China and I described my nurses as the grease that makes this machine of Operation Smile run – nurses are what makes this organization run smoothly and efficiently.”

Out of the 51 volunteer positions on an Operation Smile international surgical program, 19 positions are filled by nurses. Currently, nurses represent 36% of our medical volunteers.

Operation Smile nurses are also the only medical volunteers who actively provide care for patients through every stage of the surgical process. 

During patient screenings, nurses assist with comprehensive health evaluations, which determine if patients are healthy enough to receive anesthesia and surgery. Operating room (OR) nurses manage the equipment needs of the surgeon and ensuring that sterility is never compromised. Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses carefully monitor patients as they awake from anesthesia before post-operative nurses tend to patients with wound care and educate their families about the healing process prior to being discharged.

Deidre Fenner, operating room nurse from Australia, at work during an Operation Smile surgical program to Cebu City, Philippines. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

Regardless of their subspecialty, Operation Smile nurses’ knowledge of pediatric principles and their diverse abilities ensure that every patient receives the exceptional care they deserve.

The pre-op and post-op nursing duties are combined into a single role, which requires physical stamina and sharp decision-making skills amid the bustling mission or care center atmosphere.

“(Pre/post-op nurses) are adept at multi-tasking as they admit and assess new patients while monitoring those already on the ward,” said Ann Campbell, Operation Smile’s Senior Director of Medical Oversight. “They’re always using their critical thinking and assessment skills to recognize a change in the patient’s health status.”

PACU nurse Florence Mangula consults with a patient's father during an Operation Smile surgical training rotation in Ethiopia. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

In the pre-op role, nurses prepare and monitor our patients ensuring that they are physically ready for anesthesia and surgery. They support the patient and family with information and emotional care while maintaining a time-sensitive workflow with the OR staff.

Next, OR nurses control the logistics and workflow of the operating room, often managing two surgical tables simultaneously.

“The role of an OR nurse is patient safety first,” said Bryn Frazier, a volunteer OR nurse. “We ensure that the correct procedure is to be performed on the correct patient prior to induction of anesthesia… At the end of the case, we provide safe patient care with the anesthesiologist as the patients wakes up from surgery.”

OR nurse Bryn Frazier (right) prepares a young patient for surgery during an Operation Smile surgical program to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

This is leads into the PACU, also known as the recovery room, where the patient is monitored as they return to consciousness after surgery. PACU nurses are responsible for monitoring the patient’s vital signs, assessing their airway and breathing, and must be ready in case the patient experiences any complications. They also make sure the patient is adequately hydrated and that their pain levels are controlled. As are all Operation Smile nurses, PACU nurses are trained in life support skills to respond to these potential emergency situations.

“PACU nurses play a very big role because they are the bridge between the OR staff and the pediatric (post-op) ward staff. In fact, they are the first people to see patients come into the ward before their parents see them,” said Florence Mangula, a PACU nurse from Kenya who has served on more than 30 Operation Smile missions. “The nurse then monitors the patient until they are fully awake… We also check for any bleeding or swelling from the operation site and report that to the (PACU physician).”

PACU nurse Chen Wei cares for a patient during an Operation Smile surgical program to Dafang, China. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Like all Operation Smile medical volunteers, our nurses are a diverse group which hails from around the world – a factor that presents communication challenges they do not face at work in their home countries.

“I have been in the OR with seven people and no one speaks the same language,” Bryn said. “Because of our commitment and knowledge, the cases run smoothly – we are all on the same page.”

Ann added: “That's what makes nurses great. We don't stand around looking for someone to figure out the answer to a problem. We just link arms and jump in to get the job done.”

While the roles vary between subspecialty, the common thread between all Operation Smile nurses is their calling to serve those who need their attention and skill the most.

“We do missions in our home countries, we travel long distances to another countries, we learn new things from the other international volunteers or even the local hospital nurses and we teach new updated things to the other volunteers and local hospital nurses. It's like a global knowledge exchange,” said Yazan AbuAlfa, a PACU nurse from Jordan. “We don't change only the patients’ and their families’ lives, but our lives are changed too.”

PACU nurse Yazan AbuAlfa (center) consults with a patient alongside surgeon David Chong during an Operation Smile surgical program to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

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