From the moment the last patient departs for home with their new smile, to the months that lead up to the next surgical program, a patient advocate’s work is never finished.
All year long, advocates like Don Jorge – the use of the honorific Don conveys respect for that person – are out in the hardest-to-reach areas serving as a bridge between patients and Operation Smile. It was through his work as a patient advocate that Don Jorge found Eli, pictured above with his family during a home visit.
By fostering relationships with families and reaching farther into the most remote areas of Honduras, Operation Smile Honduras’ patient recruitment and advocacy program Acompañando Sonrisas - “Accompanying Smiles” aims to find the remaining people living with untreated cleft conditions in the country.
Five advocates, including Don Jorge, attended the recent August 2022 program in Tegucigalpa, bringing with them hopeful patients and families who had been reached through the successful efforts of Accompanying Smiles. All photos by Carlos Rueda.
The program in Tegucigalpa not only honored Operation Smile Honduras’ anniversary, but it celebrated the local volunteer team’s return following the pandemic to Hospital San Felipe, the location of Operation Smile Honduras’ first-ever program 25 years ago.
As 112 patients and their hopeful families arrived for screening, volunteers from countries around the world, including Honduras, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, Nicaragua, UK and the U.S. and Sweden, joined their skillsets and their passion to execute one of Operation Smile Honduras’ largest programs since resuming surgeries.
It was during screening day of this special program where we met Adelmo and Zoe. While these patients have two very different journeys to surgery, they both experienced just as equally beautiful outcomes.
Many people in Adelmo’s remote community only chose to see his cleft lip.
Adelmo never attended school and lives an isolated life where the closest town is a two-hour walk from his home. Although he lived 38 years with an untreated cleft lip, Adelmo knew surgery was possible very early in life. However, working on a corn and beans farm and making a meager $4 a day, affording the cost of cleft surgery was well beyond his means.
But a month prior to Operation Smile Honduras’ program in Tegucigalpa, one phone call changed Adelmo’s life and future forever.
Like most parents who discover that their child’s health is at risk, Ana and Darwin immediately began learning everything they could about cleft conditions. In the midst of their research, they once again crossed paths with Operation Smile Honduras. But despite finding out that Operation Smile existed very early on in Zoe’s life, the family’s journey to reach the 2022 Tegucigalpa program spanned three years.
Shortly after her birth, Zoe was taken to her local hospital in San Pedro Sula with hope that she could receive care. But being only 4 months old, she was too young to receive surgery at that time. However, it was here that Ana met Don Jorge, a patient advocate who provided hope as well as a direct line of communication to all upcoming programs. Ana and Don Jorge remained in touch until Zoe was old enough to try again in 2019.
After the long journey, the family’s hope faltered once again. Zoe was sick, and medical volunteers determined that it wouldn’t be safe for her to undergo surgery. It was only a year later when Darwin and Ana faced their greatest obstacle yet.
When the pandemic hit Honduras, care centers closed its doors and surgical programs were temporarily suspended. Zoe’s family was at a loss for what to do next.
A friend of Adelmo initiated his journey to Operation Smile Honduras by reaching out to Dr. Jennifer Viera. As a local pediatrician and Operation Smile Honduras volunteer, Jennifer uses her personal connections at the public hospital where she works as well as her own private clinic to locate patients across the region.
Adelmo is currently one of 15 patients who Jennifer has connected to Operation Smile Honduras.
When Jennifer called Adelmo to let him know about the upcoming August program, his excitement and determination were unmistakable. He was fully prepared to travel any distance, which is exactly what he did. After enduring hours on a bus to reach Tegucigalpa and withstanding a long screening day, Adelmo was told that he was healthy enough to receive his long-awaited surgery.
Relief and happiness were the two emotions Adelmo said he felt the moment he entered the operating room.
For nearly two years, Don Jorge stayed connected with Ana and Darwin, reassuring them that Operation Smile Honduras was doing everything in its power to resume surgeries and care for patients like Zoe.
Then one day, Ana learned about the Tegucigalpa program, and without hesitation, she and Darwin made the long journey for a second time. When asked what motivated her to cross such an extensive distance again, Ana simply said that as a mother, there is nothing she wouldn’t do to improve the life of her child. She would’ve traveled farther if needed.
During the August program, Zoe became the first patient on the surgical schedule to receive her new smile from volunteer surgeon Dr. Miguel Fariñas of Paraguay.
After living 38 years with an untreated cleft lip, Adelmo received a surgery that can take as few as 45 minutes.
Dr. Rocio Trujillo of Ecuador performed his life-changing surgery and shared that she was thrilled with the results. With Adelmo having lived his entire life with a cleft lip, Rocio understands that the emotional impact of seeing his new smile healed will be extraordinary.
She is looking forward to see him again for when he returns for his cleft palate surgery, but in the meantime, Rocio hopes Adelmo experiences more happiness out of life and that people will finally be willing to see the joy he brings to the world.
Operation Smile Honduras’ newest care center is located in San Pedro Sula, which is just 40 minutes from Zoe’s community. With this new location, Zoe and hundreds of other patients will have access to ongoing comprehensive care services much closer to home.
Zoe was one of 61 patients who received surgery during the August program.
With the ever-growing crew of patient advocates like Don Jorge who are devoted to reaching patients like Zoe and Adelmo, Operation Smile Honduras’ local team is stronger and better-equipped than ever before to meet the demands of its patients for another 25 years.
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.