If someone told me years ago that one day I would be working in an operating theatre in Zomba, Malawi; I would have laughed and responded with disbelief. Yet last week I sat as a Patient Image Technician (PIT) volunteer for Operation Smile, right outside two operating theatres as a global power team of experienced plastic surgeons, anesthetists and nurses changed the lives of many babies, children and adults as they had their cleft lips, cleft palettes and noses repaired.
I had absolutely no idea of what to expect on an Operation Smile mission so I decided to go with the flow and take it one moment at a time. I believe it’s the best way to approach something so far from your comfort zone. I made sure I packed some Rescue Remedy in case things got overwhelming and arrived at Cape Town International Airport not knowing any of my fellow volunteers or how the next ten days would unfold.
We spent the first two days medically screening patients who travelled over 14 hours to get to Zomba Central Hospital in hope that they themselves or their loved ones would be selected to receive a safe, life-changing surgery. Over dinner one evening; Conrad, the Plastic Surgeon Team Lead, said that he was surprised to see how many adults had arrived on the screening days – far more than any other mission he had been involved in. Conrad’s comment struck a chord with me as I observed each case.
Take a moment to think what life would be like as an adult if you had a cleft lip and/or palette. Imagine you lived in a rural village in Malawi and whenever the sun sets and it’s time to make a fire; you have to call a passerby or a neighbour to blow on the coals to spark a healthy flame because you cannot? It’s highly likely that your speech is impaired, throat and ear infections are a regular problem with a scarcity of medical supplies and trying to find a good job or a life-partner is an endless, hopeless struggle. That is what makes each Operation Smile mission so amazing – around 150 patients will leave this hospital with healthy new smiles; which will renew their hope and open up new opportunities they never thought possible.
One morning I chatted to a 19 year-old patient who was waiting to go into his surgery and I asked him what he was most looking forward to post-surgery. My PIT buddy, Clem, translated his answer for me; ‘Man, I just want to get married!’. In rural Malawian villages men get married around age 18. I shot his post-op photos and when he was handed a mirror to admire his new mouth and face, his eyes welled up with emotion. As I walked him through to the recovery area, I pointed to where a wedding ring would sit on my own hand and tried to say, ‘Now you can find a wife’. Another smile, another life changed for the better.
I was amazed how the adult patients undergo cleft lip and cleft palette surgery with only local anaesthetic. On the second day of surgery, I saw a 44 year-old man sitting outside on a bench waiting to be called in for his surgery and he was shaking. His nervousness unsettled me and later, as I watched an exceptionally talented plastic surgeon work on him, reminding him to keep his eyes closed, I sent him all the good vibes I could muster up. Can you imagine? It’s like sitting in a dentist’s chair except that the medical professional leaning over you is doing a major surgery that will change the rest of his life. And that’s why each local patient lies dead still and perseveres for what must feel like a life time as the plastic surgeon works his / her magic.
The result makes it all worth it as each adult patient sits up and admires their new reflection for the first time. The Malawian patients I observed seemed to have an ’emotions party’ internally that sometimes made their eyes glisten with gratitude.
“Today is the day for transformation. Today I begin a new life.” – Vincent, 60 years old
If I had to describe my behind-the-scenes experience in one word, it would be ‘surreal’. Each night, it took me a good hour or two for the theatre monitoring machinery metronome to quieten in my mind. As the beeping faded away, I drifted off to sleep thinking about the 35+ smiles that were operated on that day and how their futures will be redirected on a much brighter path.
You can read my previous Operation Smile blog posts by clicking on the hyperlinks below: