With her bright eye shadow, playful scrubs, dangly earrings and genuine laugh, Vicki Darnell exudes a fun and spunky energy – evident to anyone in the room with her. Her contagious laugh makes patients, parents and volunteers alike fall in love with her personality almost instantly.
Vicki, a nurse based in Arizona, was volunteering here in Arba Minch, Ethiopia on her 17th medical mission with Operation Smile.
Her first experience volunteering with the organization was in 2007 when one of her friends from work mentioned the children’s medical charity to her. She immediately looked up Operation Smile and filled out a volunteer application. Seven years later, her love for the organization has only grown.
To anyone working alongside Vicki, it’s clear her love to help people drives her day in and day out. Even as she works the overnight shift here in Ethiopia, looking after the patients as most of the team rests for the next day, she is easily one of the most energetic medical volunteers.
“At home this is expected of you,” she says in a rare free moment. “But here, the people here don’t have anything like this, they don’t expect anything of you and you give it your all and the families are overcome with emotion.”
Operation Smile holds each medical volunteer to adhere to the organization's set global standards, to provide the highest quality care in every corner of the world where Operation Smile works.
Here in Ethiopia, it’s no different.
Medical volunteers seem to work even harder, love stronger and connect deeper with these strangers they don’t understand and may never even see again. As with all the medical volunteers I've seen, Vicki’s endurance seems endless.
“At home I tell myself, ‘You can do anything for 12 hours,’ to get through a shift. But on a medical mission, I just feel like I can do anything for a week. It’s a long week, but I run on the adrenaline of the experience.”
The life of an Operation Smile volunteer is a little hectic, to say the least. It’s a big sacrifice to drop everything and travel 32 hours to remote locations, in rough conditions and work for a week straight, but the reward entirely compensates for the sacrifice, Vicki says.
Vicki says her favorite part of a medical mission is when parents see their children for the first time after surgery.
“It’s an indescribable emotion to witness and be a part of,” she says. “I can tell in the parent’s eyes that it means a lot to them. It’s stressful for the parent to watch their children go into surgery, but the emotion felt when they see their child again with a beautiful new smile is just incredible.”
She recounts one medical mission in Bolivia where a beautiful child with a cleft lip had been stuck during the screening process because he had a minor cold and his eligibility for surgery was in question. Vicki noticed how emotional the mother was getting and how desperately she wanted her son to be cleared for surgery, so she acted quickly as she always does.
She personally took the child back through the screening process, and spoke with the doctors about the child’s condition, advocating for him every step of the way. In the end the medical professionals agreed with Vicki and cleared the child for surgery. The child's mother was ecstatic with the results and so thankful to have someone rooting on her side.
Though all the emotional highs of a medical mission, Vicki admits that sometimes she can’t wait to get back to the food she’s used to and her own bed. But by the time she gets home, she’s always ready to get back on another Operation Smile volunteer team.
“Operation Smile is an amazing way to meet people from all over the globe, see the world and see the change one organization can make in hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said. "The patients and their families drive me. Though most of the time we can't understand each other's language, we all understand the power of a smile."