12 Days that Changed My Life and the Lives of More Than 100 Children and their families – Part 1

Ruth Kaiser, of SpontaneousSmiley.com,
a frequent contributor here at DrGreene.com,
shares her experience as a volunteer on a medical mission to Paraguay with Operation Smile.

The first day at the hospital was amazing. So amazing. I hardly know where to start.

The hospital is part of a military base that we entered through a gate guarded by soldiers with great big, scary looking guns. The sight of them seemed so incongruous to what we were there to do. We passed though security, and in the field next to the hospital, we got the first look at the waiting parents and children; many had arrived the day before. Hundreds more had arrived since. Busloads more would arrive through out the day.

Large tents had been erected to provide shade (by the Army peeps, who could not have been nicer!). Several long tables were set up with chairs along either side, one side for families and one side for interviewers. One of the many great things I witnessed, was that many of the initial screeners were local high school students who had trained to be the ones who asked the initial questions to get the patient charts started. How cool to see kids helping kids!?!

Inside the hospital were multiple stations each child would visit. They would be weighed and measured, photographed and x-rayed. Vitals would be taken. Hearing tests and blood would be administered. They would be evaluated by nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, audiologists, speech therapists, dentists and orthodontists, who had traveled to Paraguay — for no pay — coming from countries all over the world.

Some children were deemed not healthy enough to be able to tolerate surgery. Things as simple as being extremely underweight, anemic or having a fever could disqualify a child for treatment. Although that decision was made at the first station, all patients were encouraged to stay and see all of the doctors in hopes that causes for the issue that excluded them could be discovered and treatment started. Pretty cool, huh? These children would be at the top of the list when Operation Smile returned in 6 months.

Being the non-medical type, as in I get faint just visiting people in the hospital, my job was to play with all the kids who would spend much of the day waiting, and waiting and waiting. There were so many kids. Easily as many, if not more, did not have clefts; these were the patients’ siblings. Lots of kids, need lots to do. To that end I brought 2 huge suitcases filled with toys and art supplies. I was there as the professional Play-ologist.

It took a bit of time to get into the groove; the kids and I both were not sure just how this was to work. They were feeling shy and so was I. So feeling self-conscious I figured, what the heck I’d do the most out-there thing I could think of and get it over with. Break the ice. Dive into the deep end. Take ‘em by storm. That is to say, start singing and dancing in front of a large and bewildered crowd who could no more understand my motivation than they could understand my English.

I recruited a couple of other volunteer (grabbed is actually the more accurate verb). We put on wristbands with long flowing ribbons (made by my great daughter Hillary and me) and started frolicking. The kids took some cajoling to join us, particularly the kids with the clefts. The siblings were much less shy-no big surprise. With timid children, who clearly looked as if they wanted to join in, I got their moms dancing and slowly they opened up. We made up a little choreography using dance moves from good old Jazzercize.

The remainder of the day was spent both outdoors with the waiting kids and families and indoors with the kids as they progressed through the stations. Inside I got to spend one-on-one time with kids and more than a few nestled themselves into my heart. Knowing that I’d be able to shadow a few children through their surgery day staying with them through the whole process, I started writing their ID numbers onto my hand so that I might ask to be with them. Funny thing is that by the end of the day many of the numbers had washed off. When I was asked to describe their deformity so that the medical person I was asking might recall which kid I was talking about, I couldn’t do it. I’d spent 45 minutes with the kid, together solving geometric puzzles, but I hadn’t noticed why they were here. With so many kids with clefts, I just stopped noticing.

Tomorrow we go to the hospital and families find out if their kids were selected. I am sure it will be powerful both for the joy and the sorrow. In Paraguay, the local team has psychologists to talk to each family about why their child was not selected, what they can do next, and are able to refer them for services locally or help them to understand the process for applying to come to the states for cases too difficult to be done in Paraguay.

The following day, surgeries will begin. It will be 5 tables going all day for 5 days; the days will be long–ten to twelve hours and about 25 cases a day.

Feeling so lucky to be here.

Smile. Be happy. Be happy you can smile!


P.S.: If you ever go to a small hospital where hundreds of people will be using just 2 toilets, bring toilet paper.

Three of these children are siblings. Can you tell which two children are patients?
When you figure it out, you may need a kleenex. 

Ruth Kaiser

Ruth Kaiser is a preschool teacher, TED Talk speaker, children's author, AND the creator of the popular online art project SpontaneousSmiley.com where thousands of people find, photograph and share Smiley Faces they find in everyday objects.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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  1. Each time I hear of your experience I SMILE! Your love and ability to change lives is so amazing Ruth. Thank you for sharing what a difference you made during Operation Smile! The world is a better place because of YOU. xoxo


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