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Volunteer Story Honduras

A Woman Who Serves: Q&A with Surgeon Dr. Gladys Amaya

Volunteer surgeon Dr. Gladys Amaya assists during cleft surgery at a 2016 Operation Smile Honduras surgical program. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Like so many of the men and women who donate their life’s passion to Operation Smile, Dr. Gladys Amaya feels that the transformation she creates in the lives of people born with cleft conditions doesn’t compare to the impact they have made on her in return. 

Learning about Operation Smile Honduras during her medical residency, Gladys never looked back after witnessing the need for high-quality cleft care from medical professionals and surgeons like herself.

“I did not imagine the magnitude of the health problem we had in Honduras,” she said. 

Gladys hopes to inspire future surgeons just as her family encouraged her to never let anything stand in the way of going after her ambitions and goals.

“My dad was a man who stood up for women. They told him not to send me to the capital city to study,” Gladys said. “Today, Honduras has a woman president. I am currently the president of the Honduran Association of Plastic Surgeons. I think I am the third female plastic surgeon in Honduras.” 

We recently caught up with Gladys where she spoke about the pride she feels serving as a female medical professional in her home country and how learning from her fellow volunteers shaped her into a better surgeon. 

Volunteer surgeon Dr. Gladys Amaya meet with a mother and her 4-month-old daughter, Aliana, during screening at a 2016 Operation Smile Honduras surgical program. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Q: How did you feel attending your first surgical program with Operation Smile Honduras?

A: “The first time, I was a resident, and I felt like I was a foreigner in my own country. They all knew each other and yet I was very well received. The good thing is that, as a resident, you work with doctors who already had 25 years repairing cleft conditions. One thinks that they know everything, but standing before a teacher, you realize that much remains to be learned. I was lucky as I worked with good people who guided me, explaining things to me step by step. All in a very loving way. I felt that it was a family. It was very impressive.

“I had the opportunity in that first program to work in the pre-operative ward. Around 300 patients came. At the end of the day, I was so tired. I didn’t imagine the magnitude of the health problem that we had in Honduras.”

Q: Do you think that volunteering for Operation Smile Honduras programs helped make you a better surgeon? 

A: “Completely. But it's not just about surgical skill. Everyone becomes more sensitive. I love it because I have contact with surgeons from different cities and we meet and share. Every program is different. Even if you are the lead surgeon, a little tip from a colleague can make all the difference. Someone may think that it is something repetitive to operate on a cleft lip or cleft palate, but no, it’s about the patients.

“When I started in Operation Smile, I already had a son, and this generated an enormous empathy for children with cleft lip and cleft palate. Someone told me, ‘Charity starts at home,’ and I learned to have a little balance between the programs and my home.”

Dr. Mauricio Herrera, surgeon and Operation Smile Colombia Medical Director, left; works alongside Dr. Gladys Amaya in the operating room during a 2017 Operation Smile Honduras surgical program in Tegucigalpa. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Q: How does it feel to be part of a team with other volunteers? Do they acquire knowledge that they later transfer to their communities? 

A: “In Operation Smile, we operate with an instrumentalist only. So you learn to work with both hands. The instrumentalist already knows everything they have to do and they already knows my rhythms during surgery. 

“Teamwork is the best. The beauty of Operation Smile is that there is no competition. We just do it the best way we can, and in the end, we all achieve almost the same results. We create a standard.” 

Q: You recently ran an all-female surgical program. What inspired you to do that?  

A: “Most of the volunteers and staff at Operation Smile Honduras are women. Operation Smile carried out a ‘Women in Medicine’ program in Morocco, and we had the idea of doing something similar to commemorate Honduran Women’s Day on January 25. 

“We women felt empowered that we could do it. And it was possible because most of the team are women. One of the volunteers has to travel three to four hours to get to the program. She has a son born with a cleft palate. She said, ‘Operation Smile operated on my child, so I'm going to be a volunteer for Operation Smile.’ And she has reached out to more volunteers.” 

Q: What is the difference that a program carried out only by women can make? 

A: “The benefit is because we know each other. We are a team. The women-only program went great, but it’s not about excluding men. For me, it was a coincidence that we were only women. The result does not depend on us being women. No matter the gender, every professional learns to do it one hundred percent.”

Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Q: What is it like being a woman in medicine in a country like Honduras?

A: “My dad was a man who stood up for women. They told him not to send me to the capital to study. But he always supported the idea. When I started studying medicine, half of us were women. And we were very assertive, very competitive. One becomes purposeful.

“In my generation, eight men and two women graduated. It was difficult to get work. I had to adapt. Become serious, tell myself, ‘I’m not going to be intimidated.’ I am currently the president of the Honduran Association of Plastic Surgeons. Today, Honduras has a woman president. The Medical Association is also presided by a woman, as are almost all the medical associations in the country. I think I am the third female plastic surgeon in Honduras. When they start to get to know you and your work, they no longer see your gender but see you as a plastic surgeon.”

Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

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.

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