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Volunteering with Operation Smile in Bolivia - Part five

By: Mölnlycke Health Care, July 16 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 five: Adam and Anna complete their Operation Smile mission

Day six

Our third day of surgery greets us with a heavy rainstorm that had been dumping rain on Santa Cruz throughout the night. The roads are in bad condition but our bus drivers get us to the hospital safely and on time. We have another full day of surgeries but everyone is excited to get started. Dr. Daniel Pyo starts us off, each morning, with a quote that helps remind us why we are here. The 14-hour days have started to wear on a few of us but his words ring true and are appreciated by all.

Every morning our pediatrician Jan-Erik and his team also meets up with everyone scheduled for surgery as a pre-op check, ensuring that everyone is feeling well, not sick, no coughing, etc.

Child sitting in its mother's lap while being examined at Operation Smile in Bolivia

Today we have a few cases that are not the “typical” Operation Smile procedures.  The first is a hand case.  A young girl with Apert Syndrome has syndactyly. Syndactyly is the one of the common traits of someone with Apert Syndrome. Syndactyly is the fusion of one or more fingers.  The girl’s name is Maria. I had a chance to meet and play with Maria during the pre-screening. She was full of energy and was really keen on me figuring out how to make her a balloon animal. I was able to fulfill her request with moderate success…

Today, two of the surgeons were going to separate some of the fingers on each hand. Unfortunately, because of the risks, they couldn’t separate all of them. But this operation would definitely give her improved dexterity. The surgeons planned to take a small, full-thickness skin graft from her hip. They will use this graft to repair the tissue that will be exposed as a result of separating the digits.  One of the doctors invites me to scrub in to help with the procedure! This procedure takes a lot of “manpower” and they could use the extra hands! Of course I say “Yes!” and am shown how to properly scrub in. Once seated beside the surgeon, I help by positioning and holding the forceps so he can properly access the various parts of Maria’s hands. I also get to cut the sutures as he sews the graft into place. The procedure takes over two hours but is deemed a success. Maria will require follow up but as long as she is able to keep her sutures and wounds clean-she should heal normally and have increased use of her hands.

The rest of the day goes smoothly. There is one other unusual case – a 13-year-old boy who has severe scarring from a burn that must have covered over 50 percent of his body. He has contractures in the back of his knees.  The surgeons repair the contractures and implant two tissue expanders in his lower back. In a couple of months they will harvest the skin and repair the scarred tissue on his abdomen. It is a long procedure but fascinating to watch.

Another 14+ day is logged in the books and the surgeons were able to operate on nearly 30 patients. Thirty more kids who will have a better chance at living a normal life. Thirty more kids who will have a better chance at enjoying their childhood the way a kid should. Thirty more diplomats to spread the message of Operation Smile.

And they all received a Mölnlycke Health Care mirror after surgery, which was very much appreciated.

Tomorrow is the last day of surgery. It will only be a half-day. But everyone wants to give 100 percent because the patients that will be seen, tomorrow, are just as important as the first ones seen on day one.

Day seven

Today is our last day at the hospital. The entire week has gone off without any major issues and the team is determined to have our last day go as smoothly as the rest. Today is only a “half day” of surgery and we wrap things up by 4 p.m. One of the most interesting procedures is a skin flap. The boy who is having the procedure has a tissue expander in his forehead. It looks like a tumour that is about the size of a tennis ball. It is in the center of his forehead. It is quite startling to see as it is paired with a nose that was severely damaged in an auto accident.  The plan is to remove the expander and rotate the flap onto the damaged nose. The procedure is lengthy but is deemed a success.

As we pack up the O.R., we are sad to say goodbye to our student volunteers.  They were a huge help as translators and patient escorts.  Each day they came with tons of energy, enthusiasm and excitement. It was contagious and the patients and the staff benefitted from their presence. We also say goodbye to the hospital for the last time. We’ve spent more time here than anywhere else since we arrived in Santa Cruz. It has become comfortable and I am a little sad to leave it.

We all head back to the hotel to prepare for the night’s celebration. At 7:45 we board an open-air, double-decker bus and ride around Santa Cruz. We are blasting Bolivian dance music and waving to people on the street. A few wave back but most of them stare in confusion as this busload of gringos yells and waves at them. We go to dinner and celebrate the end of a successful surgical mission. For many of us, it will be our last night, perhaps ever, in Santa Cruz. We all want to linger for just a little longer; chat for a little bit more; reminisce a bit more before we head back to the hotel.

We are so grateful to have had this opportunity to experience Operation Smile. The people we’ve met, the experiences we’ve had, the friends we’ve made will all last a lifetime. This organization is full of passionate, skilled and caring individuals. All of these individuals came together to form a team that did so much good for the people of Bolivia. All told, we screened 238 patients, of which 141 were helped by surgery during the week!

It’s rare that you get to be a part of something like this and we know it is an experience that we will never forget.


Anna and Adam in scrubs at Operation Smile mission in Bolivia 2014

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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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