While many people may not know Alison Smyth, her impact on Operation Smile’s mission can be felt in nearly every patient story seen on our social media and website.
Through her volunteer work as Operation Smile’s assistant production manager, Alison has attended a total of 109 international trips with Operation Smile: 74 medical missions, 32 follow-up trips and three film productions.
Her journey with Operation Smile began while she was living in Lima, Peru, in 1999, when Alison volunteered as a translator in support of a medical mission.
“Like so many Operation Smile volunteers, I was hooked from the very beginning,” Alison recalled.
Over the years, her position in the organisation has transitioned into an integral part of our storytelling.
Connecting with patients face to face to learn how surgery transformed their lives allows Alison to see first-hand the change Operation Smile brings to the lives of families around the world. While interviewing patients and families is one of her major responsibilities, the work she does has a much greater impact.
Families welcome Alison into their homes and see her as a friend and someone who they can trust.
Visiting them can include 15-hour car trips, long walks through the countryside and trekking through rice paddies. But no matter how the long journey is, Alison shares that it’s worth every mile to see the joy on the faces of families whose lives we have touched.
“In my work, I have seen so many instances where a child, the siblings and family members are shunned, teased, and ostracised from the community,” Alison explained. “Mothers who, before surgery, do not take their child out into the community in order to avoid the questions, the blame, the teasing.
“After surgery, many mothers say the biggest change in their life is that they can go out with their child and their child is like all the other children.”
We’re grateful for Alison’s compassion and devotion because we’re witness to the stories she’s helped bring to life.
“Quite simply, I love my work,” Alison said. “And I’m fortunate that I’m able to volunteer full-time. What inspires me? Our families – telling their stories and raising awareness for Operation Smile.”
We sat down with Alison to learn more about her work with Operation Smile throughout the years as well as hear her favourite stories from her time in the field.
Q: What is your favourite aspect of your work with Operation Smile?
A: “Being out in the field and meeting and learning about the families’ lives, hopes and fears for their child. The time at the mission and going through surgery and recovery is filled with anxiety for the parents, and even though they are happy post-surgery, they still worry about how they will care for their child through the recovery process. Probably my most favourite aspect is when I return to the country six months to a year later and meet the families, babies, children, adults again and learn how the surgery has restored dignity to the family and learn of the hopes they now have for their child’s future.”
Q: You’ve been a volunteer with Operation Smile for more than 20 years. What inspires you to continue volunteering full time?
A: “Over the years, I have seen how our in-country foundations have, through their work and education, reduced the stigma of living with a cleft condition. To hear mothers say that they learned about Operation Smile at birth or, in some cases, during the pre-natal ultrasound is an enormous step forward. For a mother to know that there is a solution is life changing.
“Mothers that come to a centre with their baby say that the experience is very positive because, at the centre, they meet other mothers like them and are able to share experiences with them. A number say that the centre is like their second family. Knowing that in some small way I can be part of the team that is instrumental in making a difference is what motivates me to continue to travel many, many weeks a year (at least before COVID-19 and hopefully again in the not-too-distant future).”
Q: Can you tell us something that people would be surprised to learn about the patients you’ve met during your travels?
A: “Not sure if this is surprising, but the trust the families put in the Operation Smile teams is humbling. They trust complete strangers with their child. The fact that they so rarely complain about the many hours they wait or the fact that they may not be scheduled for surgery this time.”
Q: Is there a patient or family story that stands out as most memorable in your time with Operation Smile? What was so powerful about that story?
A: “So many stories! The 56-year-old gentleman in Ghana who was 55 before he learned that surgery was possible. On learning that he was scheduled for surgery he called his wife to tell her to prepare two chickens and buy Fanta because they were going to hold a party when he got home. Two sisters in the Philippines: when I asked the mother what was the most special part of the girls’ surgery day – apart from the surgery itself – she answered hearing the girls say “Mama” properly for the first time. In so many cases the most powerful aspect is that a simple surgery can return dignity to a child, a patient, a family and in some cases a community.
“One of the most memorable answers I received was on asking 66-year-old Qi Xiu what she was looking forward to most after her surgery. Her response was, ‘I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to school and no one will laugh at me.’
“When we met Qi Xiu a year later, she told us, ‘I love my smile, nobody laughs at me anymore.’”