I asked my friend Karin d’Orville to write an account of her volunteer work for Operation Smile in the Congo. Operation Smile changes smiles and lives for the people they help. As a mother I can just imagine how heart-wrenching and difficult it must be to have a baby with a cleft lip, cleft palate or other facial deformities.
The long wait
Karin: "French and Lingala are foreign to me. I don’t understand a word. But the emotions on the sea of faces under the canopy are universal: hope, anxiety – and fear. Fear of having hopes dashed. Fear of the unknown. Any medical procedure is a daunting prospect. But the prospect of being selected for an operation that could make you fit in instead of being an outcast – that’s a valid apprehension.
Kinshasa is a sprawling city of some 9 million residents. The lawn of the Clinique Ngaliema is jam-packed. Parents of babies as young as 4 days and grown men of 84 years old – they all hope to get the thumbs-up for facial surgery. Their fates lie in the hands of a group of some 60 foreigners, assembled from 8 countries, including South Africa, Namibia, the USA and Belgium.
Like every member of the group, I’ve volunteered to be here. It was as a journalist in November 2008, that I got first hand knowledge of Operation Smile, an international NGO that changes the lives of mainly children with cleft lips and palates. When I recently had to decide what to do with my weeks of accumulated leave, I thought back to my Madagascan experience with Operation Smile – and that not all their volunteers are medical professionals. It wasn’t a difficult decision to offer my services for a mission in the DRC.
Queueing for surgery
Medical records are probably the most “un-medical” job during an Op Smile mission. After a few days of writing and filing, my back ached, ink levels were low and my hand cramped. But it brought me up close and personal with every patient who so desperately needed life-changing intervention. And when my spirits were on the low side, a team member would so magically appear and offer a back rub or cold drink in the sweltering Kinshasa heat.
Queuing for surgery
Of the 377 patients the team screened, 155 were operated on. I needed no translator to understand the warm handshake from a grateful parent – the shy and painful but oh so perfect smile of a young patient taken to post-op in a wheelchair.
Queuing for surgery
Operation Smile turns no patients away. Those who did not receive surgeries in May, have been asked to return – when Operation Smile visits Kinshasa again. Will I be back? Yes, cramping hands and all. Individuals are so often powerless to affect change – but my experience in Kinshasa has taught me the power of the collective – and has made me so grateful for what is my perfect imperfect life in South Africa."