Bay Reflection
My Last Mission of Hope
by Joan Bennett Clancy

I finally sewed the new patch on my lab coat, right under the first one. Under the words Operation Smile, both have a script reading Creating Miracles for Children Worldwide and A World of Difference A World of Hope. Both make faces and scenes scurry through my memory.

The latest patch commemorates my work last spring as a volunteer pre-post operation nurse with the World Mission of Hope on a 39-member international team in Nanchang, China.

Pre Op has two assignments and a million rewards. One assignment is evaluating the candidates for surgery. Working the camera to provide Polaroid documentation, I focused on a face and clicked x 290. As I witnessed 290 faces that Mother Nature chose to deform, photographing became an astonishing event.

In the U.S., we rarely see an unrepaired cleft lip. We saw a sea of flawed faces flowing before us at The People's Hospital of China in Nanchang. Some had lived with a splayed face through adulthood. Some had the accompanying deformity of cleft palate. That these people survived speaks well for their caretakers. That they maintained any spirit of hope under their cloud of hopelessness was inspiring.

The surgical team would select about 160 patients for about 180 procedures to be done in five days of surgery. All who had only a lip malformation would receive surgery. The more complicated deformities would be evaluated. Because of the severity of the deformity, some would get further evaluation by the World Team. Some disappointments would be unavoidable because of risk or health status.

When the list was posted after two days of screening, anticipation, joy, disappointment all prevailed.

Saturday was run-through day. Six corrections would be done so we could test our functionality for the full swing starting Monday. We set up the empty surgical suite. The team ran six tables in three rooms. All went well.

Monday our mission of one smile at a time started in earnest.

The hope of our patients kept us going when we became exhausted by the long days under extraordinary conditions. The hospital was a pretty structure, but inside it was like a field hospital - in the Civil War. My LCD thermometer was hi-tech stuff. They had a couple of shake-down mercury thermometers for the 35 patients we would receive each day. We bring our own professional equipment or we would have nothing, and we leave as much as we can. We can never leave enough.

The family shares the care of the patient. Many of the children's caretakers were grandparents. The parents could not take the time from work to accompany their children. Whatever the relationship, caretakers stayed with the child every minute pre- and post-op. They stayed 24 hours and then were on the road - however long the trip home - with that wonderful new face. They were powered by elation.

The response when parents and grandparents saw their child whole for the first time ranged from cradling and chanting to tears and staring. They had succeeded. They had corrected Mother Nature's error despite the hardship, the hard trip, the anxiety, the years of drooling, the stares, the shielding of the face, staying in the house and out of school. That was the past. Now they had a whole future with a whole face.

Thirty or 40 faces a day traveled the surgical route, one smile at a time. Mother Nature would have to bow to talented surgeons with skilled hands. Melancholy of defect would have to relinquish to the joy of corrective surgery.

I had seen every face before surgery, and I was one of three nurses to receive them post operatively. We'd say, "I don't remember this child" and then flip to the documentation photo. What a reward! I can remember being exhausted at the end of the first 14-hour day, but more I remember comparing the pre- and post-op faces in disbelief that once the child had looked like that. The parents would flip to the photo and gaze at a face that could now fade away like a negative.

Some of these patients had thought the day would never come. One teenager said, "Now, I can kiss a girl." Oh, to have all the pieces fall into place at last. The normal activities of kissing, chewing, breathing, biting are returned. Oh, to look into a mirror and see a whole face for the first time, forever now. To smile one smile at a time.

Joan Bennett Clancy, of Fairhaven, a perennial NBT contributor, is a retired community health nurse who now works for the Foundation Close Up.

| Issue 32 |

Volume VII Number 32
August 12-18, 1999
New Bay Times

| Homepage |
| Back to Archives |