12 Days that Changed My Life and the Lives of More Than 100 Children and their families – Part 2

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.

Surgeries begin today. Another day filled with big adventures-lots to learn and people to meet. As a first timer I go into this situation with only a sketchy little idea of what I will be doing to help the team.

One of my main responsibilities is to look out for the 2 teenagers from America who are part of the team. Operation Smile has clubs at high schools all over the world where students work to raise money to fund the medical missions. Two students, who have been active in their club and have attended trainings, go on every mission.

The role of the teen volunteers is to play with the kids and when ever possible to educate the children and families about dental hygiene and other health related issues. Teenagers were incorporated into the process early on in Operation Smile’s existence, when 30 years ago, the Magees (the founders) brought their own children with them on the first missions. It became abundantly clear that having a couple of people free of any medical duties, and able simply to play with the kids, was extremely valuable.

I could not have been luckier with the 2 teens I got. Hunter and Brendan (a Senior and Junior) were great! They needed little oversight and were great at jumping in. I’m not so sure that I, as a self conscious teen, would have had their level of chutzpah.

The three of us, the American Play-ologists, arrived with our bags of bubbles, crayons, puzzles, hot wheels, stickers and pipe cleaners. The children having surgery had checked in the night before. Entire families had slept on the ward. The families were nervous. The kids were hungry and thirsty! It was our job to help both groups get though the day.

I found my role pretty quickly. As each child’s turn came, they and their parents were ushered into the area just off of where the Operation Rooms were. With the assistance of a translator the anesthesiologist met with the parents and did one last assessment of the child. (Local teens, who have been active in their Operation Smile Club, serve as translators for the mission. Everyday about 15 local high schoolers join us and helped the medical personnel and families communicate. How cool to be 16 and assisting a surgeon explain a procedure and a parent explain their concerns.).

So what did I do here? No medical know how. Not much Spanish in this old noggin. But I am a mama. I became the Lovey-Dovey Parent Caretaker. Imagining what it must feel like to hand your child over to someone with whom you cannot easily communicate, I decided they needed a little, no make that a lot, of TLC.

The medical staff had no time on their hands. I had only time. A nurse might simply call out a patient’s name and lead the family in. I had been playing with the kids and cajoling the parents. I knew them beyond the name and number on their hospital bracelet.

Whenever possible, I took on the responsibility of getting the families. My technique included hugs, arm squeezes, thumbs ups, hand holding, tickles and bubble blowing. It wasn’t much, but it was a lot. I sat with them while they met with the doctor. If they looked bewildered, I asked questions hoping to clear up their concerns. And when it was time to hand their baby over, I made sure they got enough kisses. And then since there is no such thing as enough, one more kiss.

And almost without exception, when I walked them out to the waiting area the questions they were too scared to ask the doctor, they asked me. It was a profound realization that these parents so wanted their children to be chosen for the surgery, that mom and dad weren’t going to take the chance of being perceived as the problem parent by asking a lot of questions.*

I walked them to the waiting area holding their hands or with an arm around their trembling shoulder. The SOP was for parents to simply walk down the hall to the waiting chairs. Instead I walked them there, with the empathy of a fellow parent. It was as if, by being kind, I gave them permission to cry. And cry they did. The whole stiff upper lip thing, isn’t really the way to go. Crying is such a great release when the situation is filled with tension and fear.

During the 1-3 hours that they waited, I stopped by and gave updates. I didn’t really need to know any medical specifics. What they needed to hear was: so far so good, it’s going well, thumbs up from the doc, the new smile is looking so good.

I was the Lovey-Dovey Guide. My day consisted of guiding them to the operating area, to the waiting area and then into recovery. It was an honor to be the one who brought mom or dad back to the Recovery Room to see their child’s new smile for the very first time. Lots of tears. Lots of hugs. Lots of smiles.

The parents were, of course, thankful. I hope they realize that we too were thankful.

Smile. Be happy.


* What I perceived as the parents’ reluctance to rock the boat, for fear their child might be excluded, also became apparent as everyone pulled out their cameras. These were extremely intimate moments in these family’s lives. We all were careful to ask permission before taking pictures, but truthfully I soon came to understand that they probably felt they had to say yes. After the first day of surgeries, I put my camera away.


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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