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Volunteering with Operation Smile in Bolivia

By: Mölnlycke Health Care, June 5 2014Posted in: The Mölnlycke Health Care blog

As part of Mölnlycke Health Care’s ongoing support for Operation Smile, a non-profit organization that provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children around the globe, Mölnlycke Health Care employees can volunteer to take part in Operation Smile missions. Employees Anna Dahlberg and Adam Dansby recently returned from an Operation Smile mission to Santa Cruz, Bolivia and will share their stories.

Part four: Adam and Anna head into days four and five of their Operation Smile surgery week


Day Four

The wake-up call seems to come earlier today. But after inspecting my watch, it appears to be right on schedule. Today we will break off from the rest of the group and visit a local orphanage.

After some confusion on the location, we arrive at a modest but clean house. We are warmly greeted by one of the caretakers and ushered in through the gates. All the children at this facility are under the age of four. And all have some kind of developmental challenge. The kids’ joy is a sharp contrast to a general feeling of hopelessness. Who will adopt these children? Because of the political situation, parents from the US are not allowed to adopt Bolivian orphans. And the government makes native adoption difficult. Even without these obstacles, the odds of someone wanting to adopt a developmentally challenged child are low. But we deliver diapers and formula and have an opportunity to play with the children. If there is one thing that unifies all kids, it's the desire to play and have fun. We play for a couple of hours and head on to the hospital.

Today is another long day of surgeries. I am nervous and excited as my little friend, Jhoan Sebastian is scheduled for surgery. He is to have his cleft palate repaired. He is only two years old. I had a chance to meet Jhoan and his mother on the second day of pre-screening. He was curious about the bubbles I had and soon we were fast friends. Before the surgery, it goes without saying that his mother is nervous. But I assure her I will be with him the entire time. The surgery lasts over two hours and goes off without a hitch. Jhoan comes to in the PACU and I sit with him as he recovers enough to go to the floor. The nurse delivers him to his mama and the reunion is a beautiful thing. They have a long night ahead of them but at least they will have it together.

Jhoan Sebastian, Operation Smile, Bolivia 2014

It's interesting because the cleft lip is more visibly obvious to others. But, in fact, it's the cleft palate that causes the most problems. It can impede eating and speaking and is a constant source of problems from infection to fistula formation. Jhoan will now have a better chance to eat, drink and grow like any other child. Operation Smile performs this kind of surgery 30 times a day on these missions. Each one is unique and each one matters. I am so thankful that I have an opportunity to experience this mission and share it with my team members!

 Day Five

Today we started our third day of surgery.  We have about a 30-minute ride to the hospital and it is welcome as it gives everyone a chance to wake up and prepare for the day ahead.

Today is exciting for me because Jhoan Sebastian is scheduled to be released from the hospital. The first thing I do is to head up to recovery to check on him and his mom. The morning is the most hectic time for recovery.  This is when all the surgeons are checking on the patients, family members are arriving for pick up, staff is changing shift, and the discharge process begins. I find Jhoan and his mom in room 2. Hospital Municipal Frances has been generous enough to donate space for Operation Smile to use. But the facility has not been updated in some time. The recovery rooms are cramped, there is no AC, not enough fans, and there are beds set up in the hallway. It’s not the optimal environment for a child to be recovering from a major surgery. 

The two of them are awake and looking somewhat worse for the wear. It is clear that it’s been a long night. Jhoan is in pain from his palate repair and his mom is trying to do her best to comfort him in an uncomfortable situation. We have a bit of a language barrier but I am able to piece together that her father is coming to pick them up. The discharge process has started and patients are being interviewed as they are released from the hospital. I spot Jhoan’s chart and it’s deep in the pile. With a little distraction and a sleight of hand, somehow his chart ends up at the top of the stack – they are up next!

I help her with her luggage and we set up in the shade to wait for her father. I run across the street and pick up some water, Coke and empanadas for breakfast. Jhoan can’t eat anything but I am sure mom is hungry. It takes a couple of hours for her dad to arrive and through some bad Spanish (on my part) I am able to discern that she is the youngest of five; her father is a taxi driver; they have two cats and one dog; her husband has to work in a factory that is five hours away; and she is 24 years old. By the time her father arrives, Jhoan is starting to feel better and is able to drink some juice. We say our goodbyes, and I watch as they head home. They will have their follow-up appointment in seven days and I hope everything goes well.

The rest of the day is spent in surgery and post-op observing and helping out where I can. All the surgeons have “big” personalities and keep things light and fun in the O.R. It’s another long, 14-hour day. But it’s worth it as we were able to take care of 27 patients. Everyone is too tired to head out for dinner so we eat at the hotel. I split a plate of lizard with a team member. It’s delicious!  We all retire to our rooms because the 5:30 wake-up call is just around the corner and, tomorrow, we have another long day of surgery.


Learn more about the Operation Smile volunteer experience in the Mölnlycke blog. Check back with us or subscribe to the blog to make sure you get to read the continuing story!

Volunteering with Operation Smile in Bolivia - Part one: Adam Dansby writes about the two-day prescreening process

Volunteering with Operation Smile in Bolivia - Part two: Anna Dahlberg chronicles her experience in her Operation Smile diary

Volunteering with Operation Smile in Bolivia - Part three: Adam and Anna start their second week with Operation Smile: Surgery week

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The surgical and wound care environment is always changing. The Mölnlycke Health Care blog addresses topics and trends in surgery and wound care. Among these topics are efficiency, health economy, infection control and patient safety. Read more about this blog and how to comment.

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