It's hot. Beads of sweat run down my back under my borrowed, mismatched scrubs. Hundreds of families have packed into the low-ceilinged waiting room at Militar Hospital Central de Sajonia in Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay, desperate for the chance at a free surgery that will change their children's lives. I am here with over 60 international Operation Smile volunteers who have come from around the world to provide free surgery for children with facial deformities.
Every 3 minutes a child somewhere in the world is born into the uncertainty of life with a facial deformity. A cleft lip and cleft palate can threaten both the life and livelihood of a child. I do not understand the parent's words as they look pleadingly into my eyes as they speak quickly and with urgency, but I understand that they know I am there to help. I feel their fear and anxiety of handing their precious child off to a stranger who can't speak their language. But there is one thing stronger than their fear -- the hope of a better life for their child. Will my child be chosen? Will my child's life be changed? Will my life be changed? The wait is unbearable.
I see a few children that are too young for surgery this mission, their mothers try to stifle the tears and disappointment with the help of a psychologist, who delivers the news. "Not this time, but next year," he says. Their strength inspires me as they preserve despite this setback. A stark contrast to this scene is the group of student volunteers; they are from local and international high schools and universities. They bound energetically through the halls in brightly colored hats, blowing bubbles, smiling, and encouraging the children to join in their play. The sounds of laughter echo down the corridors of the barren military hospital. People buzz around me, each one a crucial moving part that makes a medical mission tick: the student volunteers in silly outfits, caring medical staff, nervous parents, children of all ages, compassionate volunteers, the list goes on.
As a staff member with Operation Smile, I have the privilege of accompanying a group of ambassadors from Ethicon/Johnson & Johnson on their first medical mission. We laughed together, cried together and witnessed countless lives changed. I've experienced the mission through the stories of hundreds of people, surgeons, students, volunteers, donors and staff, yet nothing compares to being in the moment, handing that child back to their relieved parent with a new smile and a new future, experiencing the joy and sometimes heartbreak that comes from this kind of work. You will be changed, you will experience sadness, loss, joy, excitement - but most of all hope.
As a team, we screened 265 patients and provided life-changing surgeries to 102 patients during this medical mission. We not only created 102 new smiles, we also touched the lives of the families, the local community, and each other.
We were welcomed as strangers to this country and we leave as friends, having come together for one hope, one promise: a healthier future for these children and their families. Operation Smile co-founder Dr. Bill Magee regularly shares this sentiment with us, and it seems fitting now: "The strongest bonds of friendship are forged in the service of others," I couldn't agree more.
Operation Smile is currently a supported partner of Johnson & Johnson's Donate a Photo app. If you would like to help heal a child's smile, download this free app and with a photo a day you can be a part of Operation Smile's promise for a healthier future for these children and their families.