Operation Smiles All Round

Operation Smile 1 Brigid After

Last July, Lucy Nugent, from Ranelagh, visited Tamale in Ghana to volunteer with Operation Smile Ireland (OSI) a company based in Dublin 4. Operation Smile is a registered Irish charity providing free surgery for children born with clefts in the developing world. OSI are part of a global alliance of organisations who run volunteer programmes for 5,000 volunteers globally, a hundred of which are in Ireland.

Clefts result from incomplete development of the lip and/or palate in the early weeks of pregnancy, affecting approximately one in every 700 born in this country. “If a child is born with a cleft in Ireland it will be identified while the child is still in the womb,” says OSI’s In-Country Manager, Mairéad O’Callaghan. “They would receive surgery within the first six months of life. In the developing world, 75% of cases go untreated. This goes on to create various levels of problems for the children and their families.”

In the first year, parents have a really hard time nourishing their children. The mortality rate for a child born with a cleft in the developing world is 10%, so one in 10 will die before their first birthday. If they survive past that point, they have difficulty developing their speech and they continue to have difficulty feeding. As they grow older the really harrowing part is the isolation they suffer as a result of their facial disfigurement. They rarely go to school, they rarely work and they often live on the margins of society.

Among those who have received this life-changing surgery is Brigid. “I was born with a cleft lip in Kaptrit, a small village in western Kenya. My parents didn’t know that the repair of my lip was possible, and many of the children in our village were afraid of me. When I was 13, my family learned from our neighbour, Joseph Zewedi, that Operation Smile doctors would be providing surgery in Nakuru. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have enough money for the trip to the hospital.”

Kind-hearted Joseph started a collection in the village for the money -about $3.50- for a one-way bus ticket to the project site. “I began our eight-hour journey to Nakuru. Now, the children in my village not only accept me, they believe I hold some kind of magic. I have more friends than ever,” she told OSI after her surgery.

Lucy, who works in management at the Children’s Hospital, Temple Street, volunteered as a medical records nurse for two weeks in July. As Mairéad explains, “For the most part volunteers need certain skills because it is a medical charity providing a very specific medical procedure. Our volunteers are mostly medical professionals; from plastic surgeons, to aenethesisits, to paediatric nurses, theatre nurses, speech and language therapists, dentists. We have the medical records, who would be non-medical professionals maintaining the medical charts.”

Operation Smile 1 Brigid Before

After a-one day training course with Operation Smile Ireland, Lucy was assigned a trip to Ghana. “I expected to be moved by the stories of the children, adults and their families living with a facial deformity, but was not expecting to be so impressed by the dedicated team of professionals from all over the world that I was fortunate to join. Everyone was so welcoming and full of useful advice – some of them having done in excess of 40 missions,” said Lucy.

“I would do it all again in a heartbeat. In a world where we are too busy to take the time of day to engage with others, this was two weeks where I felt reconnected to the world. I am now trying to remember the basics that people need – to be accepted and not shunned for looking different, to be able to feed normally, to speak and be understood and to smile to let the world know you are content,” said Lucy.

For further information on Operation Smile, please log onto www.operationsmile.ie or call Operation Smile Ireland at 01 6676659.

Above: Brigid Nanjala now 16 years old, three years after surgery at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital, Nakuru, Kenya. Brigid at 13 shortly before her cleft palate operation. Both photos by Jason Towlen

By Emma Dwyer