In the early hours of Friday 21 April, I swapped a radio studio for an operating theatre as I joined my first Operation Smile International medical mission in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As I walked out of Kinshasa N'djili Airport, I must admit that I experienced some trepidation about arriving alone in what is considered a high risk destination. What I expected what a hostile city. What I entered was a city filled to the brim with compassionate, loving people.
Now, two weeks later, the joy that came out of my time in the DRC, has assured me of the incredible work that Operation Smile does across the globe. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet and interact with a mission team made up of doctors, anesthetists’ and nurses from around the world, we had the opportunity to grant several Congolese children and adults a new start at life.
In the six days that follow my arrival in Kinshasa, 102 Congolese children and adults received life changing surgery. Families travelled from across the country in the hope that their children would be eligible for surgery, with a few denied due to malnourishment, malaria and pneumonia. These patients however would be given a second chance at the next Operation Smile mission in the DRC.
Babies who were declined surgery due to malnutrition were referred to the Operation Smile feeding clinic where mothers were taught breast feeding techniques to use on children with cleft lips. Patients with speech impediments work closely with a speech therapist in order to improve speech.
My role on this particular mission was as a Patient Imaging Technician. I was responsible for documenting every surgery from start to finish for research purposes. This required me to interact with patients from start to finish, taking photographs before, during and after surgery.
The first time I entered the operating theatre to document the procedure I was extremely anxious. I could not believe that 24 hours prior I was producing a radio show and now I found myself dressed in scrubs overlooking a 7-month old baby boy who was about to have life changing surgery. The little baby who was on table had no idea of the bearing the 45-minute surgery would have on his life, his parents, his health and his future. He will grow up with the ability to smile, eat and interact normally.
On the third day of surgery I was introduced to a nineteen-year-old boy who had bravely endured the surgery without any family members accompanying him. When he looked into the mirror for the first time with his new smile, his eyes glistened. Later in the day the same boy found a translator in order to tell me that he is never going to stop smiling now that he could do it without looking scary.
On the same day, I handed a thirty-two-year-old women a tube of lipstick after she had woken up from surgery. The look on her face when she had realized that she would be able to apply lipstick to her “full and complete” lips sent a shiver up my back. It is the tiny things we take for granted in life.
After every day of surgery, I made an effort to visit the post-operative ward where patients spend the night being monitored after they have surgery. Walking into a room filled with brave children, already smiling so recently after enduring surgery.
I feel it important to note the impression that the fathers of young patient had on the team of volunteers. Fathers in Kinshasa appear tremendously involved in every aspect of their children’s’ lives and it was lovely to see the support that they showed for both their children and their wives during this time.
The privilege of being able to have a hot shower and climb into a warm clean bed was in stark contrast to the poverty and hardship witnessed during the day. While I was privileged to assist in a mission that would see a change in several lives, the impact that the children of Kinshasa have had on my life is overwhelming.
A few days after arriving in Kinshasa, after 102 successful surgeries and a final medical check, families return to communities with lives forever changed.
The team of volunteers from several corners of the world had nearly as much of an Impact on my experience in Kinshasa as the patients and their stories. The doctors and nurses that I met, who dedicate their precious time to working voluntarily for several days a year, shared stories of previous missions with me. Many leaving behind partners and young children for several days on end in order to make a contribution. And this contribution is noted by all.
When I asked other volunteers why they continue to work with Operation Smile, I received a plethora of response. These range from the pleasure they get out of working alongside a team of strong like-minded people, to small moments like the joy they get when a baby gets to feed successfully for the first time in its life and they know the baby will start to live a healthy nourished life.
Operation Smile has taught me that the small contributions that you make in life, for which you should need no recognition, reap the most rewards and while I didn’t have the opportunity to visit much of the DRC other than the hospital that we worked in, but I can say that Kinshasa is a lovely city to visit, with vibrant passionate people, and joyful children. While Operation Smile continues to do the brilliant caring work that it does there, the children will continue to heal one smile at a time.