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My Bolivian Boys

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You never know how life’s experiences will affect you. I went on an Operation Smile Mission to Bolivia expecting personal satisfaction, and what I got instead was an unplanned look inside myself and new insights into my own behavior.

Like many people, I love kids and have a giving heart. So when my employer, Ethicon, selected Ambassadors for a Bolivian Operation Smile Mission, I knew I would be one of them. I have worked with the local NJ Chapter of Operation Smile for over 10 years and I’ve been familiar with Operation Smile for twice that long. While I had no compelling reason to go on this mission, I felt like I had to go.

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I arrived in Bolivia after a long flight, full of jitters, excited, imaging what it was like, and ready for an adventure. And how I love an adventure! I met many other volunteers, but didn’t understand why they were on the trip, or why I was really here. I prayed to God that I’d have an answer before I left. I wanted to understand why all these people are giving up vacations and work commitments to do this. Why?

The Ambassadors crew I met quickly made life easy for me. We shared so much in common working for a large corporation like Johnson & Johnson. When we went to the hospital to help screen the kids for surgery, I took inventory of my skills and reached way back to how I kept my own children engaged to pass time.

I managed to remember a few of my stale old magic tricks that I learned to amuse my kids. The tricks worked! On that first day, I met Hermando, an 11 year old with a cleft lip who traveled for a day with his uncle on a bus to try and get his lip fixed. He was a very handsome boy, but extremely shy. I knew magic tricks would cheer him up, and I gave him his own personal show. In no time, his bright white smile and cleft lip were no longer shyly covered by his hand. I had just made a real friend.

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There was Victor, a very outgoing boy who always managed to wind up by my side during the course of the day. He had his cleft lip repaired as an infant and just needed some dental work. I asked to be introduced to his parents, and I met his mother and father. Then, unexpectedly, he asked me for my email address because he wanted to keep in touch. With me? Wow! I immediately felt a great responsibility as an Ethicon Ambassador and a Humanity Ambassador. As we traded contact info, I realized I had just made a real friend.

The night before surgery was to begin, I woke up for some reason at 2 a.m. I had a question in the back of my mind that I couldn’t verbalize and so I couldn’t answer it, either. I sat there in my room thinking of Hermando and Victor, the two special boys I befriended, trying to figure out why they were suddenly so important to me.

Then it HIT me. I realized that my Bolivian boys ARE me. I was, along with my brothers, that kid growing up in Newark, NJ who had slim chance for success. I was the one you would drive past in your car and shake your head, mentally writing his whole life story in a flash, as if his life could have only one possible disappointing outcome.

I was worried for these boys. I wanted their futures to be ensured and filled with opportunity. I grew up in an atmosphere where we were told that the future would hold opportunities. My brothers and I were blessed with wise parents. Their wisdom changed 3 wild boys into 3 educated men. We needed help growing up in Newark and we got plenty of it at home, plenty of confidence to be successful.

My two Bolivian boys need that, too. I need that for them just like my parents needed it for me, just to survive I wanted that for Hermando and Victor. I wanted to will it true, to force it to happen, with no obstacles.

I wept as I thought of my real obstacles, removed by my family, and the many false obstacles created by others as I grew up. Now I’ll be honest, a guy’s worse nightmare is to cry on a mission. It pains me to say that a man cannot feel free to express emotions, but it is true. That night, I cried. I cried for Hermando and Victor and those young Crombie boys from Newark, all needing help. Just like me, my Bolivian boys Hermando and Victor were at risk to have their life story written as soon as their peers look at them.

Wonderful things happened during the following days of surgery. I got to observe and participate in opportunities being created for all these children. I stayed with Hermando through his whole ordeal, from admission to the hospital to walking him out the door. He looked fantastic as he walked away with his uncle. I know his future is changing.

And I got an unexpected message from Victor on my last day in Bolivia, which happened to be my birthday. He had a cold and could not come to see the dentist, so his father came to the hospital by bus and invited me to their home before I left Bolivia. Of course I went, through hot dirt roads and beautiful country to his one room house. I got to see Victor and his dog Cookie and got a big birthday hug too.

My last night in Bolivia was perfect, spending my birthday with the volunteer team and looking forward to more.

So now I know the question and the answer. Why was I here? Because I know these kids can be great if I stop the car and get out to help, instead of just passing by and staring. That’s why I am here.

John Crombie, a Principal Engineer with Ethicon, has developed new products for orthopedics and spine, plastic surgery, diagnostics, general surgery, women’s health, and consumer markets for over 20 years. He has commercialized numerous patents to create these innovative medical devices. John holds Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Mechanical Engineering and a Masters Degree in Business Management.

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