Hospital General San Felipe was bustling in the midst of the Operation Smile international medical mission to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in late February 2017.
Medical volunteers from the Central American nation and around the world came together to provide life-changing cleft surgeries for 130 patients that week – some among the country’s last remaining adults, teens and children who were unable to get surgery as babies or toddlers.
Three of those volunteers – anesthesiologists Drs. Judy Nguyen, Barry Beutler and Camilla Linnarsson, then a senior anesthesia resident – were part of the team that ensured every single patient received world-class, safe surgical care.
Putting patients under anesthesia and waking them up from it are the most critical times of the entire surgical process. It’s a big part of the reason why Operation Smile created its Global Standards of Care*, which provides guidelines for performing safe surgery in resource-poor environments.
It’s also why the organization invests heavily in training and education programs for its medical volunteers.
In addition to donating their time and expertise to help the patients of this mission, the gathering of Judy, Barry and Camilla underscored Operation Smile’s commitment to patient safety and physician education.
These anesthesiologists represented three generations of the Regan Resident Leadership Program in action.
Named in honor of its benefactor the Regan family, who fund the program through their nonprofit Harbourton Foundation, the Regan Resident Leadership Program provides senior residents in anesthesia, pediatrics and reconstructive plastic surgery the unique educational opportunity of attending an Operation Smile medical mission to volunteer under the mentorship of experienced physicians as their assistants.
The goal of the program is to develop the skills of future Operation Smile medical volunteers from around the world while serving patients and working with colleagues from low- and middle-income countries. Fellows are also given the opportunity to help carry out comprehensive patient health evaluations and Operation Smile-led research projects like the International Family Study.
One of the original anesthesia mentors of the program, Judy is a veteran of 31 Operation Smile medical missions dating back to 2006 – the program’s first year.
Barry studied under Judy on his second Operation Smile medical mission to La Vega, Dominican Republic, in 2012.
And at the February 2017 Tegucigalpa mission, Camilla studied under the mentorship of Barry on her very first Operation Smile medical mission. This was Barry’s eight medical mission and his first as a mentor.
“I wish I had this experience when I went through my first missions, because I’ll tell you, it took me a lot of missions to get where I am now,” Judy said. “I’m hoping the residents I train will take half as much time to be at my same level.
“The best compliment for me is to have someone who is just as good as or even better than me at the next table that I just trained.”
Judy learned about Operation Smile during her residency from her attending physician, who was also an Operation Smile volunteer.
After she volunteered on her first Operation Smile mission, Judy learned from her mother that her great-grandmother, grandfather and his two siblings were born with cleft lip in their native country of Vietnam.
Judy’s family history made volunteering and educating for Operation Smile take on an even deeper meaning for her. However, aside from these personal reasons, Judy said she believes passionately in sharing her fine-tuned skills with the resident fellows.
“For me, volunteering is not just going out there and thinking that you’re doing something good – volunteering is doing something that’s good and knowing you’re doing the best that you can,” she said. “The motivating factor of working with residents is that they are the future of Operation Smile. I want them to come back, but not only come back, but to spread the word (about Operation Smile and its work).”
Reflecting on his fellowship under Judy’s tutelage, Barry said that participating in the program made him a better anesthesiologist and inspired him to continue volunteering for Operation Smile and eventually give back to the program as a mentor.
“It was nice to have Judy show me the ropes – she’s very talented – she helped me improve my skills and kept me organized,” Barry said. “The fellowship provides an excellent opportunity for the residents, it lets them get involved early, at a time when training is fresh and they’re still learning different techniques.”
On being a mentor, Barry added: “It has helped me to make sure I have my skills sharp. It helped me to review the information and update my information to make sure I know the standards so I can teach those techniques.
“It’s also important to remind you how you felt on your first mission.”
That’s exactly the perspective offered by Camilla, who was still a senior anesthesia resident when the Tegucigalpa mission took place. In April, she completed her residency at Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital, where she became inspired to take part in the Resident Leadership Program by her pediatric anesthesia colleagues who also volunteer for Operation Smile.
Camilla said that taking part in the program under Barry’s mentorship has inspired her to volunteer for Operation Smile in the future.
“It has been fabulous, I’ve learned a lot,” Camilla said. “One of the things I have realized is, both in general and in the operating room, we don’t know each other (coming into the mission). So if we just take a couple of minutes and communicate, it works. I think that’s interesting and amazing at the same time.
“We all have the same goal: We want to do the best for the kids, but we can do it in many different ways, so it’s been interesting to see.”
*Global Standards of Care © 2006, 2015 Operation Smile, Inc. All Rights Reserved.