There are many reasons why individuals offer their services, skills and time in a voluntary capacity. Possibly it is to experience the sense of altruism associated with offering your time and expertise; even a sense of atonement, perhaps. Or maybe it’s the need to ‘make a difference’ in some way or the yearning to contribute to the most underdeveloped parts of the world. It could also simply be taking some time off from the materialism and greed of the developed world.
My imagination, however, was captured by Operation Smile for two reasons: because the charity primarily improved the lives of children and because the ethos and spirit underpinning the organisation captivated my heart.
I was fortunate to be one of just nine Irish volunteers who, in February of this year, got the opportunity of a lifetime to collaborate with 132 other volunteers from 15 countries around the world on an Operation Smile mission in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam in India.
During the course of two weeks, this group of ‘Team 1’ volunteers brought ‘new smiles’ to 439 patients and screened approximately 1,500 patients. We were then followed by ‘Team 2’, who ensured that both teams made dramatic changes to the lives of 967 others.
Our vast team consisted of many different specialities, including: plastic surgeons, anaesthetists, paediatricians, dentists, speech therapists, nurses, biomedical technicians and administrators, all of whom worked tirelessly to ensure safe surgeries of an excellent standard were carried out for each and every patient treated.
To say that we simply brought new smiles to the amazing and resilient children and adults we met, however, does not capture the work we did, the lives we dramatically changed or, indeed, the wonderful people who touched and changed our lives forever.
As one of three dentists on the mission, my primary role was to extract all carious teeth and any teeth interfering with the cleft repair, as well as to make obturators for patients with cleft palates who were not suitable for surgery.
Most oral surgery was carried out under general anaesthetic (GA); however, treatment was also carried out under local anaesthetic for patients unsuitable for GA.
Obturators were made and fitted on site for people who had never known a life without food regurgitating through their noses or major speech impediments. With the assistance of speech therapists we were able to retrain our patients to eat, speak and drink.
The entire community of Guwahati was well aware of the importance of our mission, and each day we were greeted by a sea of patients all lined up full of hope and humility and with great ambitions as only the young can have.
Needless to say, the experience I had in India was not only life changing for the people whose lives I had the opportunity to affect on both a physical and emotional level, but also for me.
I got the opportunity to visit a beautiful country and to experience a colourful, intriguing, ever-changing new culture. I was humbled by the struggles of life experienced by the patients I saw, and I made many new friends among the volunteers with whom I worked. I will treasure these friends forever, who shared this experience with me and whose camaraderie, as we improved people’s lives, one after another, I will never forget.
I would like to thank the patients, their families and the people of Guwahati, India, for enabling us to carry out this successful and rewarding mission. I would also like to thank Operation Smile Ireland for their ongoing dedication and support.
Operation Smile was established in 1982. It is a global children’s medical charity that aims to provide free reconstructive surgeries and ongoing care for children and young adults with cleft lip and/or palate.
The charity strives to provide this care in 51 of the most poverty stricken countries in the world, where children suffering from these conditions live a life of marginalisation due to their inability to eat, speak, socialise and smile.
By creating global partnerships, sharing knowledge and through the infrastructure the charity builds, Operation Smile hopes to leave a legacy long after the medical mission ends.
As an Operation Smile resource chapter, Operation Smile Ireland raises awareness and funds, recruits medical volunteers to support the breadth of the charity’s global medical programmes, and promotes self-sufficiency by helping Operation Smile mission countries care for more children on their own.
If you would like to donate money to Operation Smile Ireland or wish to volunteer, please call 01 667 6659 or visit www.operationsmile.ie.