Operation Smile has over 6,000 medical volunteers worldwide who devote their time to helping patients in low-and middle-income countries receive the cleft care and treatment they deserve. Each volunteer has a touching story that led them to a career in health care, and volunteer nurse Linda James is no exception. But Linda’s unique upbringing also encouraged her to expand her volunteerism past surgical programs and into helping Operation Smile develop its growing education and mentorship initiatives.
Born in Taiwan, Linda’s beginnings were far from ordinary. Her parents served in the military, so she spent much of her youth traveling around the world with her family. She grew up in places like Guam, Turkey and Italy, which allowed her to be exposed to diverse cultures at an early age. “In my multicultural household, influenced by the customs of host countries, I was taught to deeply value, respect and appreciate all cultures,” Linda said. “Additionally, being raised in a military family, a love for helping others through service and dedication was instilled in me.”
Linda’s love for medicine came at an early age as well. Ever since she was a teenager Linda knew she wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, working specifically with children. In her second year of college, Linda discovered nursing and quickly realized it was the perfect fit for her. She has been a proud and venerable pediatric nurse for 24 years. While helping children in a healthcare setting fills her heart, mid-way through her career Linda was looking for a way to give back to those in need. Enter Operation Smile.
“I learned about Operation Smile while doing an internet search for organizations that accepted pediatric nurse volunteers,” Linda said. “Through my involvement with Operation Smile, I had the opportunity to participate in several educational programs. These experiences allowed me to connect with local nurses, engage in educational activities, exchange information and provide mentorship.”
Linda’s commitment to helping patients and learning more about cleft care and treatment over the years caught the attention of organizers at Operation Smile, who thought Linda would be a perfect fit to help launch Operation Smile Academy (OSA), an online learning and mentorship service for cleft care professionals. This platform aims to increase the capacity of health professionals and health systems to treat people affected by cleft conditions.
“When I was approached by Operation Smile Academy to conduct their first-ever webinar, I initially felt nervous. However, I soon realized that this was a remarkable opportunity to reach a broader audience and deliver much-needed education,” Linda said. “It has been incredibly rewarding to hear feedback from nurses around the world who have watched the webinars and found value in them. The positive response has further strengthened my belief in the impactful work that Operation Smile Academy is accomplishing to enhance global cleft education.”
Linda’s role at Operation Smile Academy has evolved over time. She is currently a member of the nursing faculty and has recently created a series called “Wake Up the World,” which explored post-anesthesia care (PACU) nursing. Last year, Linda and her team completed two parts of the series and have plans to create more in the future.
In 2014, Linda volunteered on her first surgical program with Operation Smile, and this past May, she completed her 13th surgical program abroad. During her last excursion, Linda traveled to Chiapas, Mexico and helped a total of 58 patients receive safe cleft repair surgery. “Volunteering with Operation Smile has enhanced my career by providing me with invaluable experiences and perspectives that contribute to my personal and professional growth,” Linda reflected. “I truly have become a better person and nurse as a result of those experiences.”
Linda’s commitment to Operation Smile is infectious, and her enthusiasm for service is felt by everyone she works with. The hard work and positive attitude that landed her a position at Operation Smile Academy also earned her a spot on Operation Smile’s newest mentorship initiatives and surgical programs, Women in Medicine and the Champion Program. “In September, I participated in the Women in Medicine program held in Malawi. Additionally, I was honored to be selected as a Champion for Ghana, where we are collaborating with the local team to enhance capacity building within the country,” Linda explained. “The opportunity to contribute to these initiatives is incredibly exciting, and I am looking forward to continued involvement.”
Shortly after Linda began volunteering with Operation Smile in 2014, she transitioned into a role as a travel nurse so she could have more flexibility in her work schedule and afford to take off more time to participate in surgical programs. When asked what her favorite Operation Smile experience has been , it was difficult for Linda to highlight a single experience. “There have been so many memorable moments during each program,” Linda said. “It is the children, their families and my team members who make each program so special. However, I must confess that there are at least one or two patients who manage to capture my heart every time! Besides the amazing memories, I have been gifted with close friendships with many of my team members. The bonds we build throughout a surgical program are truly incredible.”
Recently Operation Smile invited Linda to take over the Operation Smile Women’s Instagram account on International Nurses’ Day to highlight the nursing role at Operation Smile and to engage audiences in the work and mission of the organization. “I wanted to introduce the amazing nurse volunteers of Operation Smile and also encourage more people to consider joining the nursing profession,” Linda said. “Interviewing other nurses was an absolute blast. Many of them expressed their appreciation for being honored and recognized for their year-round efforts as nurses. Everyone had a great time with the takeover, and I was thankful for their willingness to participate.”
Devoted volunteers like Linda play a pivotal role in bringing the organization’s lofty goals to reality. Linda’s can-do attitude and eagerness to participate in new initiatives and growth strategies makes her an asset to the organization.
“In the future, I see Operation Smile continuing to build partnerships with local hospitals and governments to make a lasting impact on healthcare systems in low- and middle-income countries,” responded Linda. “I also see Operation Smile continuing to work towards empowering women in medicine worldwide. As for my role, I would love to continue supporting and working closely with local nurses to strengthen their nursing workforce in whatever way I can. I look forward to the future of Operation Smile and the opportunity to be involved with such an amazing organization.”