Operation Smile. The name of this organization brings a smile to my face and I believe it brings broader smiles to the faces of thousands of people who have benefited from its benevolence.
The first time I heard the name, I was a bit uncertain exactly what it stood for.
One of my colleagues in my workplace spoke keenly about them.
The mission needed support and we gave them our contribution. I am glad we did.
Operation Smile is an international medical charity that provides free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries.
They believe that every child suffering from cleft lip or cleft palate deserves exceptional surgical care.
Cleft is the third most common birth defect affecting many babies. Surgery for children with cleft is critical because these children suffer from thirst and hunger. They have difficulty with speech and are often subjected to bullying and stigmatization.
When we made a decision to provide some support to the mission we had a brief meeting with the Ghana representative, Sabrina. Sabrina is a sweet, lovely, enthusiastic lady, who is bent on achieving the mission of Operation Smile, no matter what the challenges are.
She invited us to take a day off to see a typical day at the center. We willingly accepted her invitation. She and her other team member Lucy do a great job mobilizing resources for the Ghana mission.
My colleague and I travelled to Koforidua Hospital, where the mission was taking place. I was impressed when I entered the hospital. The buildings looked well-maintained and things seemed to be in order.
I was also impressed with the number of volunteers, both foreign and local, who were on duty to support the mission.
The volunteers included surgeons, doctors, nurses, dieticians, administrators, psychologists, student volunteers, etc.
It was a real delight to see how the volunteers had set up the playroom for the hundreds of patients who were going to be operated upon. Many of them were children including babies and toddlers.
It was lovely to see the volunteers playing with the children and helping to settle them down.
The kids were fretting because they could not eat as they waited to take their turn for the surgery. Sadly, the mothers looked on helplessly as their children cried for breast milk and food.
The volunteers, most of whom were foreigners, managed to keep the kids “calm and sane” for most of the time.
They blew bubbles, danced, sang, cuddled, carried them, played handball with them and did lots of other fun things with them.
They provided coloring books for the older children to do some coloring. All these were intended to keep the children active and busy so they don’t focus on their hunger.
This is what can best be described as “suffer to gain.” The calm temperament of the volunteers was very reassuring and I could feel the love and warmth from where I sat.
Operation Smile Ghana did a lot to get the patients to come for the surgery. They had to send scouts who travelled the length and breadth of the country to look for people with these congenital deformities.
They also did some promotional work. They followed up with calls, visits, and provided buses in all the regions for the patients to travel to the surgical center.
The patients and their mothers stayed over a week to go through screening, confirmation and preparation for surgery.
When we were called into the theatre to have a look, I wasn’t sure to think.
I shook my head initially, but Sabrina and Rhoda, who we now call ‘’apprentice doctors’’ beckoned that I followed.
As I wore the appropriate gears to enter the theatre, I took a deep breath. Watching babies go through surgery was not a pleasant experience. But the joy of seeing them transformed kept me glued to the spot I was safely standing. The surgeons did their work as if there were no visitors around and within an hour or so the kids were out, safe and sound.
What is more touching is the rousing cheers the patients are given when they are entering the theatre. The mothers are usually quiet at this stage.
The apprehensive mothers have no choice but to give up their babies to the friendly surgeons. This is often followed by an emotional wave, cry or tears from both mothers and children.
This scene is enough to melt the heart of the most heartless human.
It is an emotional experience seeing the patients enter the theater, putting their destinies, lives and faces into the hands of the competent surgeons who welcome them with warm embraces. They enter the operating theater leaving behind the distorted faces, pain, shame and stigma and return with smiling faces of hope, renewed strength and a new confidence. Thanks to the team who work tirelessly, day and night to get the work done.
Time flies when you are having a memorable experience.
We soon realized it was 6pm and the mission for the day had been accomplished. As we prepared to leave, we saw another bus bring the next batch of children who would be operated upon the following day. The patients waved at Sabrina as they entered the wards, with Sabrina shouting “Akwaabaooo!” (welcome). One by one, she welcomed the women and mentioned the names of almost every child she saw. I found that very touching.
As we returned to Accra, I made a firm pledge to be an advocate for Operation Smile.
I congratulate Operation Smile, their donors, sponsors, surgeons and volunteers, who work so hard to make the missions successful.
As the organisation celebrates its 35th anniversary worldwide, I urge them to continue to work hard to put smiles on the faces of people who never knew how to smile and to continue to elevate the quality of their services.
BY Georgina Asare Fiagbenu