It’s our first morning in Marrakech, and as the sun comes up over the mountains, Malika, one of our pre and post-operative nurses, grabs the microphone. She’s vibrant, smiling, and I understand very quickly her role as a leader of the positive energy this group will emit over the next 10 days. Before I realize, the entire bus is singing as one in Berber about a woman’s beautiful face. The music guides us all the way to the doors of the Cheikh El Daoud Antaki Hospital.
I am with nine Ethicon employees, all who have supported the work of Operation Smile and who have been waiting quite some time for the opportunity to see firsthand the impact their efforts are making on Operation Smile’s field work. Since the partnership began in 1987, Ethicon has provided over $20 million of support to Operation Smile through monetary and gift-in-kind contributions. As the bus pulls up to the hospital gates, we all stand up ready to begin the first day of screening. I am next to Carolina, who works for Ethicon in Spain, we look out through the bus windows and see a sight that would support the bond between all of us for the rest of the mission and beyond. “I just got chills,” she tells me.
We see hundreds of people – families, children, grown adults – waiting at the hospital gates. Even I – as an Operation Smile staff member who deeply knows the global need of cleft care – am taken aback by the sheer volume of people hoping for a chance at surgery.
We unload the bus and wind through the crowd. Hopeful eyes are on us and, because I do not speak either Arabic of French, all I can offer is to say good morning in English, though I know this likely isn’t mitigating the nerves of anxious parents. I see my Ethicon companions are doing the same, and we finally meet on the other side of the gates. I find them looking at each other with bewilderment. “How are we going to get to all these people?” I hear one of them ask aloud.
The gates open and as the crowd dispersed under a nearby tent, the Ethicon team quickly goes to work, engaging with families and working to understand their stories. I am surprised by the level of connection that is possible through compassion, hopeful spirits, and of course, reassuring smiles. A bit later, I begin to feel more settled in the hospital and went to pull out my own haul of bubbles to occupy waiting children. As I pass through the tent, I hear one of my Ethicon companions singing the song from the bus.
She’s dancing with a child with a cleft lip through a wave of bubbles in the air. “Beautiful girl, I will follow you everywhere,” she sings in Berber – the same words Malika sang on the bus. And while I know they will only be in each other’s lives for a day or two, I know this moment will last forever. At last, this volunteer sees and feels the power of the partnership with Ethicon, the joy and hope she is able to bring and, in the end, the impact of her company’s credo.
This mission marked Operation Smile’s 15th anniversary of changing lives in Morocco, and despite earlier doubt we felt when we unloaded the bus, every single patient was screened – all 270 of them. I came to understand that screening means much more than a medical evaluation; it also means listening to patients, holding their hands when they feel alone, providing understanding of their care, and, at times, dancing with them though a sea of bubbles, reminding them how important they are.
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