Operation Smile provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children around the globe. With our global partners, we work in over 60 countries with more than 6,000 medical volunteers delivering safe, effective cleft surgery and related medical care directly to children.
This is the brief description I found when I researched Operation Smile. It is an organization I had heard of many times before through online marketing and PSA’s, but one I never could have imagined I’d become involved with and would impact me so greatly. A blog written by a fellow child life specialist from Nanaimo about her experience with Operation Smile led me to find out more about the organization and how I could get involved.
After speaking to the child life specialist and finding out what the responsibilities of a child life volunteer would be, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. With enormous support from my friends, family and Ronald McDonald House, I was successful with the application and interview process and officially became a volunteer with operation smile in January 2016. Now, all I had to do was wait for a mission to come up at the right time.
Enter Operation Smile Mega Mission to the Philippines. Three separate missions would take place in three different areas of the Philippines over the span of two weeks in June; missions in Cebu, Bacolod and Isabela. I eagerly responded to the email from the Operation Smile Child Life lead, showing my interest in going on this mission. When I was able to submit my official commitment to the trip, I had less than two months to prepare to go on my first mission. Preparing for a trip like this included purchasing and collecting items like toys and medical supplies for me to do the work of a child life specialist overseas. With lots of help from my child life colleagues at Alberta Children’s Hospital, I made sure my travel documents were all up to date, packed my clothes for a very hot and humid climate while keeping in mind I’d be working in a hospital setting and packed everything in a bag weighing less than 50lbs. Before I knew it, two months had passed. I had packed my bags, taken four flights and found myself landing in Isabela.
With some travel time together and a team outing day, there was lots of time to get acquainted and bond with the people I would be working with over the next ten days. When they say Operation Smile volunteers come from all over the world, they are not exaggerating. Team Isabela alone had professionals from India, the United Arab Emirates, Paraguay, Italy, Russia, US, Philippines, and oh yeah, me…the lone Canadian.
Each team consists of several surgeons, anesthesiologists, OR/recovery/pre/post op nurses, a couple speech pathologists, dentists, and one child life specialist. Our first day working as a team took place on screening day. On this day, families travel far distances to have their children screened by all facets of the Operation Smile team of medical volunteers to see if they qualify for surgery. This took place outside in the parking lot, in an undercover area, of Isabela United Doctors Medical Center.
As a child life specialist, my job, along with the help of the student volunteers, was to engage the kids in play and distraction while they waited for their names to be called. The distraction of bubbles, skip rope, colouring, pipe cleaners and a soccer ball worked perfectly in this environment and kept the kiddos occupied through the ten-hour day. While children were getting screened, I would also assist the kids in coping if they were having a difficult time getting their vitals checked. Pinwheels and bubbles were a few favourites among the team that day.
The remainder of the mission was set up as surgery days. I could not wait to see the area I would be working in and set up my space in the child life room. The room, which quickly got the name “Disneyland”, was set up in a semi sterile location just next door to the OR. This would be the last stop the kids would make before going in for surgery. My main role during the OR days was to run the child life room, prepare kids for surgery, along with ensuring the parents knew what would be taking place next, and provide distraction/normalization through play to help reduce any anxiety during wait times. This all took place with the great help of the volunteer students from the US that were also on the mission.
Seeing as many as six kids at once in a small space, the high school student volunteers were a saving grace. The children would spend anywhere from ten minutes to an hour in the playroom prior to their surgery. Having time in the child life room before going in for their procedure allowed them to relax and play while their parents had an opportunity to learn about their upcoming surgery.
Being in Isabela where English was not the native tongue, I learned that play really is a universal language for kids. It was through play that I was able to connect with kids of all ages, kids that spoke Tagalog, and kids that were seeing things like bubbles and stickers for the first time. It was refreshing to see how the importance of child life and child life practices translated all the same across the other side of the world. We could still practice getting used to the anesthesia mask by blowing bubbles out of it and we could still use muslin dolls for medical play.
While the Operation Smile missions may be short, the days you spend in the hospital and the time you spend with families are so powerful and filled with so many different emotions. It was the most joyous and moving moments to see the families’ happiness when they were selected for surgery. And it was the most heartbreaking when they found out their child could not receive surgery because they did not qualify or they were showing signs of a fever on the day of surgery. These times were extremely hard, as families would be sent back home, but still with hope that Operation Smile would be back to their city to perform more surgeries in the future.
My first mission with Operation Smile was an incredible learning experience. I was able to learn a lot about myself as an individual, a professional and even a traveller. I had the opportunity to work with medical professionals from around the globe, work in a hospital setting that was very different from hospitals in North America, interact and work with families from a different culture, enhance my core child life skills and do all of this while experiencing and seeing a part of the world I’m not sure I ever would have seen without this opportunity. On our mission to Isabela, just under 100 children were screened and 64 successful cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries were performed.
“Every child deserves to smile” and with the great support of the generous donors that are crucial in making these missions possible, these children can finally smile and be free from the stigma that surrounds facial deformities. I am so thankful for the experience Operation Smile provided me and cannot wait to be a part of future missions.
Written by: Alyssia Premji, Family Life Specialist