Editor’s Note: It’s Smile Week – a week where Johnson & Johnson honors and celebrates the life-changing work that our partner, Operation Smile, does for people around the world. Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, and may suffer from torments, malnourishment and difficulty with speech.Today, we are sharing a story about an Operation Smile volunteer nurse. This post originally appeared on Operation Smile’s website on June 23, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
It is 3 a.m. and I cannot sleep.
Ten flights, 60 hours of traveling, 12 hour time change over 12 days and now serious jet lag. But it was well worth it! I had the most incredible time and I don’t know that words will ever do justice to the goodness of my first Operation Smile medical mission.
I first learned of Operation Smile in October 2012. At the time, I was 18 weeks pregnant with my first child and an ultrasound revealed that she had a cleft lip and potentially a cleft palate, too. I did all research I could on cleft conditions and tried to soak in every bit of knowledge to prepare for my child’s birth.
Over the next few months, additional scans and test revealed other fetal anomalies. Though deeply desiring healing, I had to face the impossible reality that my daughter’s life would be limited.
On March 19, 2013, Addalyn Lane was born. She was just as beautiful as I could have ever envisioned. What was the best day of my life became one of my most difficult as my daughter passed away less than an hour after her birth. As a heartbroken momma, I wanted her life to be remembered and for her impact to be felt.
So to honor my Addalyn, I journeyed to the Philippines with Operation Smile, the very organization that I found while researching her cleft lip and palate.
There was so much joy, so much love, and so much hope all rolled into one incredible trip.
About 300 volunteers from 18 countries gathered in Manila and then dispersed to six different sites spanning the Philippines for the “Gift of Smiles” mega mission. Combined, 1162 infants, children and adults were screened and a grand total of 751 patients were given the gift of a smile! Incredible. I journeyed to Davao along with others from across the U.S., Canada, Venezuela, Colombia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, Thailand and the Philippines.
Parents traveled long and far – one walking from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with two children in tow. They waited long hours, withstood extreme heat, and some even slept outside for the opportunity to have their child evaluated. But there was never a single complaint. They are fiercely dedicated parents who were so gracious, loving and appreciative. Each time I stopped to scan the room, I stood in awe at their perseverance.
In Davao, we screened just under 300 patients and by the end of the week, 143 patients underwent surgery.
The need for cleft surgery was tremendous and it broke my heart to know that some of the kids were turned away. There was simply not enough time to care for them all. But Operation Smile will return, as they have for the last 32 years. They are committed to their mission of seeing every cleft repaired.
As a newbie to Operation Smile, nerves set in as I walked into my job in the post-operative ward on Monday morning. As I stood in the ward, I heard the tune of “Amazing Grace.” I walked outside and down the stairs and there was a room full of Filipino people singing “Amazing Grace” in English. In a place where the primary language was Tagalog the familiar words soothed my worried self.
The post-op ward was the place where a small cot and a plastic chair for the parent became a humble abode. Where ice cream was consumed, bubbles were blown, pipe cleaners were twisted into crowns, pictures were colored, new stuffed animals were cuddled, and stickers were as good as gold.
It was the place where tears were shed by overjoyed parents as the fear of a life of bullying and rejection was laid to rest. It was the place where a 7-year-old held tight to her baby sister as she slept. And where a 5-year-old boy stroked his little sister’s head each time she began to whimper. And the place where a twin teenage boy sat arm in arm with his brother helping to hold a cup of water to his just repaired lip.
It was the place where a mirror took on new life as a new reflection was seen for the first time. I watched one by one as toddlers, kids, teens, adults witnessed their new smiles for the first time and wondered what it must feel like to see oneself in a whole new light. I couldn’t help but think of my Addy.
When I learned of Addy’s cleft, it wasn’t a matter of if she would have surgery, but of when. But for these parents, finances were so tight, access to medical care extremely limited, and resources incredibly scarce. Surgery wasn’t a given for them, and without Operation Smile, surgery is most likely not possible.
This relatively quick surgery is so much more than a cosmetic procedure. It leads to better nutrition and speech, to a chance to raise self-esteem, to aid in ending embarrassment, rejection, and social shunning. It can give a child the courage to attend school and the opportunity to dream big for their future.
Sleeping on one of the cots in the post-op ward was a 15-month-old girl wrapped in a yellow and white blanket over her grey hospital gown. As I looked down at her, I fought back tears as I envisioned my Addy. This is what she would have looked like. I bent down, stroked her head, kissed her little cheek, and told her momma just how beautiful she was. It was yet another moment of peace for me. I never got the chance to see my Addy through her repair but for this child I did. It was where I was destined to be.
I carried my Addy’s picture everywhere I went. If it was not for her, I would have never embarked on an Operation Smile medical mission. I am so unbelievably grateful for this opportunity and already dreaming of my next Operation Smile volunteer medical mission.
Together, we are all part of the Operation Smile story.
Are you inspired to help too? We’re excited to give you two easy ways to support Operation Smile by taking actions you do every day. With the free Johnson & Johnson Donate a Photo app, you can trigger a $1 donation to Operation Smile every time you share a photo through the app.* Get it in the app store for your iOS or Android device, or visit www.donateaphoto.com for more information.
You can also help raise funds for Operation Smile just by running, biking or walking. Check out Charity Miles in the app store or visit www.charitymiles.org to learn more.
*Johnson & Johnson has curated a list of trusted causes, and you can donate a photo to one cause, once a day. Each cause will appear in the app until it reaches its goal, or the donation period ends. If the goal isn’t reached, the cause will still get a minimum donation.