As nurses, Rodney and Maryjose (MJ) Kapunan have endured their fair share of challenges in the last few years. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodney and MJ were standing alongside other health care heroes caring for patients with severe coronavirus symptoms and processing critical cases, all while trying to stay healthy enough to provide care for these patients and keep their family safe.
During the pandemic, Rodney and MJ would take precautions to avoid bringing coronavirus into their home and affecting their family. As soon as they entered their home after a long shift at the hospital, Rodney and MJ would immediately strip their clothes and shower before interacting with their children. Rodney worked in an emergency room, and MJ in a cardiovascular operating room. Exposure to the virus was definite, and preventing its spread was essential.
While non-healthcare workers might view the sacrifices Rodney and MJ made during the pandemic as near impossible, the husband-and-wife team have a deep passion for nursing and being of service to others that carries them through the hardest of times. While weathering the storm caused by a global pandemic, Rodney and MJ remained eager to return to volunteer on Operation Smile’s international surgical programs. When Operation Smile was forced to delay some surgical programs and suspend international travel, Rodney and MJ remained steadfast and were some of the first international medical volunteers to head back out in the field once surgical programs recommenced.
“My parents were the ones who advised me to take up nursing,” MJ reflected. “Back then I really didn’t know what I wanted, and I am so glad that I listened to them. I was inspired by my clinical instructors back at my nursing college. They were so smart, like walking medical-surgical textbook smart. I said to myself, ‘I will strive to be like them someday.’ Another clinical instructor of mine showed me such kindness in dealing with my patients by being present and ever ready to listen and be an advocate for them. Then I started to work abroad and met more inspiring colleagues who taught me how to make other people’s problems my own and to be willing to help make their lives better. Opportunities just kept presenting themselves, and I kept being a willing vessel.”
Rodney experienced a similar draw to nursing. Having grown up in the slums of Manilla, Philippines, he was always determined to pursue a career path that would enable him to escape poverty and practice in a well-respected profession. “I am naturally a caring person, and I have always desired to help people and make a difference in their lives. I was also fascinated with the anatomy and physiology of the human body. Being able to support my family and be of service to the community is very important to me.”
Every holiday and vacation day is considered an opportunity to devote to volunteering with Operation Smile in the Kapunan family. This year, Rodney and MJ have been on four surgical programs to Colombia, Bolivia, Abu Dhabi and the Dominican Republic. These travels add to the 38 surgical programs Rodney and MJ have participated in during the decade they have been volunteering with Operation Smile.
On her most recent surgical program, MJ traveled to Abu Dhabi and had another stellar experience working with the local Operation Smile United Arab Emirates staff and meeting inspiring patients and families. “The hospital facility was very much advanced in technology. I was so impressed with the local volunteers. One in particular I was so grateful for. She was truly inspiring and definitely justified that you don’t need to have a college education or a big savings account to help. You just need to care and make yourself available. As everywhere else, when we go for surgical programs, there will always be teaching involved.”
Bidirectional learning is a hallmark of Operation Smile’s surgical programs. By formalizing pathways for mentorship, Operation Smile's new Champion Program creates opportunities for our medical volunteers to partner with medical leaders who are on the frontlines of cleft surgery and care in their countries. By harnessing their shared medical expertise and advocacy, Operation Smile will continue to change lives and strengthen health care delivery around the world.
Rodney took part in Operation Smile’s Champion Program in Colombia last year and had a remarkable experience he will never forget: “Our team visited the indigenous quarter of Riohacha. Riohacha is close to Venezuela, and there are a lot of people who fled the country mostly due to poverty and political persecution,” Rodney stated. “We had three to four patients being sheltered at a settlement in Riohacha. Operation Smile Colombia medical staff went to the settlement to talk to community and tribe leaders to convince families of cleft palate and lip patients to have the repair surgery. It was a big undertaking to not only convince the family to have surgery, but also to prepare the patients for surgery because most of them are undernourished and anemic. Since these people don’t have access to medical facilities, Operation Smile Colombia brought the services to the settlements. They brought a team of nutritionists, dentists, social workers, pediatricians and speech-language pathologists to help prepare the patients for surgery.”
Both at home and abroad, Rodney and MJ keep their hearts filled through the impactful interactions they have with patients and colleagues, transforming the lives and the communities they touch.