Barely 10 minutes into the Operation Smile mission yesterday and I wanted to go to a corner and cry.
It was the first day of our mission in Dhaka. Cleft lip and palate patient hopefuls had travelled from all corners of Bangladesh to congregate at Care Hospital, a sponsored venue.
The early birds who arrived before the appointed time.
Their only hope: To have their facial deformities fixed so they can have a normal life.
Unfortunately, not every hopeful candidate will have his or her wish granted. Some will have to be turned away on medical grounds. Others, because there is only enough time and resources to operate on a fixed number of patients.
And that’s what broke my heart and made me want to cry, seeing especially so many adult patients and knowing that there is a high chance they might have to go home disappointed.
Priority is given to younger children because cleft surgery is best done within a certain age range.
In total, 148 patients were screened today, from babies to old folks. Only 114 will receive surgery. More hopefuls will probably turn up throughout the week but they will have to be told to come back again next year if Operation Smile has the resources to organise another mission here.
Heartbreaking as it was, I didn’t give in to tears. Wouldn’t have been very professional. I tried not to get too attached to the patients and went about doing my work.
My work involved going around learning what goes on in the mission, taking photographs for my blog, and talking to people.
Also playing with the kids. Some of them get frightened by the crowds and long screening procedures so everyone in the team tries to comfort and/or distract them by playing peekaboo with them or waving stuffed toys at them.
Each patient has to go through nine stations for the thorough screening process to determine his or her condition and whether or not he or she is healthy enough to receive surgery.
1. Medical Records
This is where patient numbers are issued and administrative particulars of the patients are recorded.
Two types of photos are taken of each patient. The first is for administrative records. The other is to have visual images of the patient’s deformities in varying angles.
3. Nursing Assessment
Nurses at this station weigh patients and do basic health checks on them such as blood pressure measurements.
4. Anesthesiologist/Pediatric Intensivist
Here is a most crucial stage because anesthesiologists and pediatrists will examine the patient and determine if he or she is healthy enough to undergo general anesthesia for the surgery.
5. Plastic Surgeons
The surgeons at this point make note of the type of deformity in each patient’s case and discuss surgical strategies.
Sometimes, errant teeth might need to be extracted before surgery can be performed. Dentists are on hand to assess the need.
7. Speech Therapy
A speech therapist gets the patient to say specific words so that the patient’s condition can be pinpointed with more accuracy. If the patient is a baby, the parents are interviewed, instead.
8. Electronic Medical Records
This is where all the patient’s details are keyed into a laptop and where the patient is told what he should do next, whether to return for further tests or await blood test results or go home.
The small hospital was crowded the entire day as patients were escorted from station to station, amidst the chaos of other waiting patients and their family members sitting or walking around, and Operation Smile volunteers going about their work.
What I was really impressed with was that, despite the stress and the chaos, all the volunteers, who are all professionals in the role they’ve been assigned, were always ready with smiles and kind words.
Even as they moved from patient to patient in their little rooms, which were always crowded with peers, assistants, patients and family, photographers, videographers and, sometimes, bloggers getting underfoot, they always patiently manoeuvred their way around the human traffic jams to perform their tasks.
There are a handful of newbie volunteers, like me, in the team, but many of the volunteers have been doing this for a long time, contributing their time and talents to this worthy cause year after year.
Even if the patients don’t make me cry, I am certainly moved to tears by the kindness and dedication shown by all the members of the mission team.
There are also tears of joy with the knowledge that, in less than a week’s time, about a hundred people will go home with brand new faces and a big reason to smile.
Before I end this post, I want to share some professional photos taken by Justyn Olby.
You remember him? He’s my personal photographer, and also the founder of the Operation Smile Singapore Youth Chapter, and also official photographer for seven or eight missions so far.
Gotta love his photos much!
Justyn Olby Photos