OPERATION SMILE – MOROCCO MISSION
In Morocco, 1 in every 750 children are born with a cleft condition each year and if left untreated, it can make it difficult for these children to eat, feed and breathe. This also massively affects speech which then exposes the child to social stigma and the parents are left believing it’s their fault.
Over 10,000 free surgeries have been performed by Operation Smile in Morocco with an estimated backlog of 4,500. We work with Operation Smile to raise funds to help these life changing operations become a reality for these children and families.
The Morocco Mission was held in Safi from 23rd to 29th November and we held a competition in order for one of our team to have the opportunity to go and volunteer. Our Liverpool Clinic Manager, Lesley won and here is her incredibly honest diary of her experience.
Day 1 – Screening Patients Day
I arrived late the night before so had no idea what to expect from the volunteers meeting that was taking place that morning at the hotel. I was so surprised by the sheer number of volunteers, with over 70 people ranging from plastic surgeons to speech therapists, dentists and admin staff – all giving up their time and sharing their expertise for free. The mission organisers run through the agenda and what are their goals and outcomes. The love and positivity from these amazing people was infectious from day one and I was so excited to get to the hospital and begin volunteering.
Later that day, we arrived at the hospital and my positivity had been replaced with shock and my heart just dropped. I felt completely overwhelmed as there was so much noise and chaos with people everywhere in this small run down area. There were busy crowds of people, some of which had travelled days to get to the hospital, all being controlled by the police. It was heart breaking seeing so many children with their facial deformities in the midst of all this. It was one of the most daunting parts of the trip, seeing all of the families outside looking terrified – I just kept thinking I cannot do this.
Fortunately, Operation Smile Partner Sarah, took me under her wing and guided me for the rest of the day. That was when I realised first-hand how important their work was as they seemed to work through the madness, knowing exactly what to do in. It was a hard first day as I felt a bit of a failure, walking around in a daze trying to decipher the day.
Day 2 – Screening Patients Day
After the madness of the first day, I begin the day with a refreshed approach and throw myself into everything Day 2 holds. I decide no matter how scared or overwhelmed I felt, it would never be the same as how these children and their families feel, motivating me to push on.
I went around the seven screening stations, which determine who qualifies for surgery. The volunteers were so welcoming and happy to explain what they do. They also stated how important it is to stay positive and smile at all times, especially when you can’t speak the language. This helps the families and children as a positive attitude comforts and reassures in times of distress and make them feel safe. I took so many learnings from the volunteers and realised how much we take the amazing care of the NHS for granted in the UK.
I watched a young boy age 3 years old screaming in pain as the Nurse had to use an adult sized needle to draw blood as that is all they had to use. It was awful to see how they had to use whatever resources they had to make a difference. This is something I saw of a reoccurring level, the operations scheduling was done on the wall with collection of post-it notes, a scheduling system is something that we would take for granted in the UK.
Going through the admission checking forms, I saw just how many parents heartbreakingly think they have caused the clefts in their children and the blame they put on themselves is awful to see.
Despite these incidents and many others like this during the day, I can honestly say this was one of the best days of my life. I played games with the children, danced in the tent, played with a balloon to stop the kids crying and blew more bubbles that I have in my whole life! I laughed, cried, hugged, helped medical records, organised the admission queue which was extremely hard when you can’t speak Arabic! The end of the screening confirmed over 320 children had been seen in over the past few days and many of them will have surgery or a dental palate which blocks the hole in the roof of the mouth and allows the children/babies to eat and drink. There was a huge sense of relief to hear so many of the children seen could now have the chance of a normal life.
Day 3 – Free Day
This was a ‘free day’ to rest before the day of operations started. We decided to go to the holding area where the families stay before being admitted to the hospital and it was so amazing. The families remember you, they greeted us so warmly and were so grateful it just melted my heart. The local people of Safi made us feel like royalty with the care, manners and love, it was incredibly humbling. I experienced a really sad moment as one of the mothers I had bonded with was told her child was too unwell for surgery she was devastated and asked me “How can I leave without helping my baby? How can I look at her everyday knowing I can’t help?” – imagine her pain. Once again an amazing Operation Smile volunteer reassured and treated this lady with kindness and offered her further support to get her child well enough for surgery on the next mission, I felt blessed to be able to support in this particular incidence.
The afternoon was spent walking through the town and visiting a museum to learn about the history of Safi – we came across some of our patients in a local hotel which was lovely.
Days 4 to 6 – Surgery Days
This is when the magic happens – we have 180 patients ready to be operated on. The surgeons have seven operating tables, with multiple operations being conducted in the same room. I had never seen multiple surgeries happening simultaneously before but it was incredible watching the teams work together under really different circumstances to what they are used to and getting the job done seamlessly. I loved helping keep the children entertained on the pre-op ward and the Health Students from USA were on hand giving education on teeth brushing, hydration and basic hygiene. I also spent a lot of time in ‘Childlife’ which is an area where a Child Behaviour Psychologist works to ensure the children are calm and happy before going through to theatres as its been proven to improve the recovery of surgery.
One of my favourite surgery days involved the dental team where they make these palates for those that are too young or weak for surgery. These palates are inserted in the mouth which allows them to feed in a more normal way. The dentist told me with cleft babies when they try to bottle feed it’s a similar feeling to being in the swimming pool and water going up your nose, with these palates one newborn baby drank his milk in 10 mins, this would normally take him over an hour and be extremely uncomfortable. The op smile standards for the volunteer team are as good if not better than most NHS trusts I’ve worked in. The level of expertise and previous experience required for a volunteer to be accepted on a mission is so high that you can be sure these children are getting the best care available.
There are not enough words to describe what I experienced and witnessed on this mission, Sarah summed it up beautifully saying “it was a privilege to witness patients, volunteers, donors and local people of Safi to come together and give so much to each other with endless patience and boundless affection”. I learned so much and my heart is bigger because all of the love and dedication of the volunteers on this mission. Thank you to all the wonderful angels involved as these children can now speak and smile like us.