I had the honor several weeks ago to accompany four of my amazing Johnson & Johnson colleagues from the Ethicon business as volunteers on an Operation Smile mission in Paraguay. Operation Smile is an international children’s medical charity that works in more than 60 countries to provide free, safe reconstructive surgery for children and young adults born with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities.
As volunteers, we performed a variety of tasks aimed at making the mission a little more efficient and fun for everyone. My favorite jobs were playing with children in the waiting room and helping out in recovery. These were the times when I got to connect most closely with the children and felt like I could help to make them more comfortable.
I was in the waiting room early one morning, tossing an inflated beach ball back and forth with several of the day’s patients, when a tiny dark-eyed girl was carried in by her mother. Dad trailed closely behind, smiling shyly. Once her mother lowered her to the floor, the little girl flashed me a devilish grin and flicked a tiny hand in the air to intercept the bouncing beach ball. I laughed and she giggled and we played together with her parents on the brightly-painted floor of the waiting room. She had a sweet smile and I could see that she previously had surgery for a cleft lip – now beautifully healed.
With the help of terrific local student volunteers who translated for all of us, I learned that the girl’s name was Carmen Leticia (“Leti”). Her parents were Eden and Maria Carmen, and they proudly told us that Leti was their first child – born 13 months ago. Their little family had traveled several hundred miles by bus from their home with the hope of having Leti’s palate repaired today — so that she could learn to eat, drink and speak normally — for the rest of her life.
Through our translators, I told Leti’s parents that, if it was alright with them, I could personally carry her into surgery and stay with her until her parents could join her in the recovery room. Their worried expressions turned to relief and I was excited to be able to help in this small way. Maria Carmen gently handed Leti to me, Eden gave her a light kiss on the cheek, and off we went to surgery with the anesthesiologist. I noticed that Eden and Maria Carmen held hands tightly as their tiny daughter and I disappeared down the quiet hallway.
Leti and I giggled and teased each other a bit as we approached the operating room. When we crossed the threshold and she saw the flurry of surgeons and nurses and technicians, I felt her tremble slightly in my arms and she gave me a wide-eyed, worried look. I did my best to reassure her and set her gently on the table to begin her anesthesia for surgery. That basic prep took just a few moments and she was soon safely asleep as the team prepped the drapes and equipment. The plastic surgeon gazed down at Leti sleeping quietly and gently laid a hand on her shoulder before he began. Just then, a gust of fear fluttered through my chest. What if something went wrong? Her mother had handed her to me and I felt the full weight of that responsibility in that moment.
I needn’t have worried. The procedure went perfectly and to watch the surgeon’s hands work so deftly to repair Leti’s palate was a beautiful thing.
As the surgical team finished Leti’s palate repair, I felt the tension start to ebb from my neck and lower back. When she was ready to move to recovery, I scooped a still-sleeping Leti up into my arms again and the team helped me take her from the operating room. As I carried her toward recovery, I could barely feel my own body. I felt as light as air, with only Leti’s slight weight in my arms. I felt so full of emotion – and so incredibly relieved. I started to cry with relief and happiness for Leti — and for the new life I knew she would have.
In recovery, the nurses were efficient, skilled and incredibly kind – truly amazing as they comforted as many as five children at once in the recovery room. They helped me to get Leti comfortable and safely situated on the hospital bed. They took her vital signs, checked her IV, and let me hold her close until she got settled. One of the other volunteers went to get Eden and Maria Carmen. As soon as I saw them and their relieved expressions, I started crying all over again. I think I was literally overflowing with happiness for them.
Leti and her parents were slated to spend the night at the hospital and, if all went well, Leti would be discharged the following morning. I thought of them throughout the evening and woke in the semi-darkness of morning, knowing that I wanted to get back to the hospital to see Leti before she left with her family. I showered, dressed, skipped breakfast and headed over to the hospital, taking the steps two at a time in the hospital toward the recovery ward. As I topped the stairway, there they were!
Leti was seated in a tiny stroller, her tiny legs comfortably crossed at the ankles – with Eden and Maria Carmen standing beside her. She had done so well overnight that she was among the first to be released that morning. All three of them were calm and I seemed to be crying again. I hugged them all and wished them well and waved as Leti flashed her little smile and they disappeared behind the elevator door toward Leti’s bright new life.
There are thousands of children like Leti whose lives can be transformed in a single day through the kindness and generosity of people they’ll never meet. I’m so proud to have been a part of Operation Smile’s work in the field, and even more proud to work for a company that helps to make it possible for children like Leti to get the quality care they need. And to my colleagues from around the world who are helping make these miracles happen, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know that Leti does, too.
Sheri Woodruff is Vice President of Communications for ETHICON Surgical Care (Ethicon), a global provider of innovative surgical technologies and products (including sutures, staplers, energy devices, clip appliers, trocars and meshes) that are used around the world to treat colorectal and thoracic conditions, women’s health conditions, hernias, cancer and obesity. Ethicon is part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.
In this role, she oversees Ethicon’s global external communications efforts including media relations, thought leadership, issue management, public relations, and strategic philanthropy – focused on both clinical and non-clinical stakeholders. She is also responsible for designing and implementing a strategic internal communications program based on Ethicon’s business strategy to inform, engage and inspire Ethicon’s 6,000 global associates.