Cora O’Leary is a Cork based nurse and long-time volunteer of Operation Smile. Read her account of her latest mission to Malawi below.
I travelled to Zomba in Malawi last August on my 9th medical mission with Operation Smile. It was by far my most challenging and emotional mission yet. We had scheduled 120 patients for surgery, but we experienced many challenges along the way.
Though it was wonderful to tell the families of those children selected for surgery, the silence of sadness of those families devastated to be told that we were unable to provide safe surgery for their child was incredibly difficult.
We had children who couldn’t receive surgery because they were too young, or too malnourished, or too unwell. The level of malnutrition was something I have never encountered before. Seeing mothers unsuccessfully trying to breastfeed their babies was heart breaking. We also had a large number of unwell children admitted to the hospital from screening – where patients come for their medical evaluations at the start of the mission. Despite telling families the reasons and going through it with them several times during the week,we had families come back for further explanation, hoping against hope to get surgery for their children. It felt like we were breaking their hearts all over again.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, early in the mission a small baby developed a chest infection at the shelter and it spread. Several patients had their operations cancelled as they were too unwell for anaesthesia and their hopes for surgery were dashed. We did our best to fill those spots with other children who had come late to the mission. But our hearts were broken.
Despite these challenges, the team worked really hard and I’m happy to report that we operated on 120 children in 4 days, reaching our goal.
After packing up the medical supplies, we returned to the shelter on the last afternoon to say goodbye and see the patients. The families came out singing, and holding up signs saying ‘thank you for our smiles’. We spent a short while there singing and dancing with them and it made
all the challenges of the week seem manageable.
Thankfully, Operation Smile is providing nutrition workshops for parents in Malawi, and providing supplies and support for families so that many of the children turned away on this occasion will have their chance to receive surgery again. This is why we must keep going back to reach more and more children.
Operation Smile’s next medical mission to Malawi will be in May 2018.