The first day at the hospital was amazing. So amazing. I hardly know where to start.

The hospital is part of a military base which we entered through a gate guarded by soldiers with great big, scary looking guns. The sight of them seemed so incongruous to what we were there to do. We passed though the security and in the field next to the hospital we got the first look at the waiting parents and children; we were told that 60 families had been there since 4am.  Hundreds more had arrived between now and then.

Operation Smile In ParaguayLarge tents had been erected to provide shade. Several long tables were set up with chairs along either side, one side for families and one side for interviewers. One of the many great things I was to witness, was that many of the initial screeners were local high school students who had trained to be the ones who asked the questions to get the patient charts started. How cool to see kids helping kids.

Operation Smile In ParaguayInside the hospital were multiple stations through which each child would pass. They would be weighed and measure, photographed and x-rayed. Vitals would be taking. Tests of hearing and blood would be administered. They would be evaluated by nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologist, audiologists, speech therapists, dentists and orthodontists.

Many children were deemed to be unhealthy enough to be unable to tolerate surgery. This was determined by things as simple as being extremely underweight. And although that decision was made at the first station, all patients were encouraged to stay and see all of the doctors in hopes that causes for the issue that excluded them could be discovered and treatment started. Pretty cool, huh?

Operation Smile In ParaguayBeing the non-medical type, as in I get faint just visiting people in the hospital, my job was to play with all the kids who would spend much of the day waiting and waiting and waiting. There were so many kids. Easily as many if not more that did not have clefts; these were the patients’ siblings. Lots of kids need lots to do. To that end I brought 2 huge suitcases filled with toys and art supplies.

Operation Smile In ParaguayIt took a bit of time to get into the groove; the kids and I both were not sure just how this was to work. They were feeling shy and so was I. Yes, I am shy. People always think I am not. I just hide it well. And BTW, one can be gregarious and also shy.

So feeling self conscious I figured, what the heck I’d do the most out-there thing I could think of and get it over with. So why not start dancing?  I recruited a couple of other volunteer (grabbed is actually the more accurate verb). We put on wristbands with long flowing ribbons (made by my great daughter Hilary and me) and started frolicking. The kids took some cajoling to join us, particularly the kids with the clefts. The siblings were much less shy-not surprisingly. With timid children who clearly looked as if they wanted to join in, I got their moms dancing and slowly they opened up. We made up a little choreography using dance moves from good old Jazzercize.

Operation Smile In ParaguayThe remainder of the day was spent both outdoors with the waiting kids and families and indoors with the kids as they progressed through the stations. Inside I got to spend one on one time with kids and more than a few nestled themselves into my heart. knowing that I’d be able to shadow a few children through there surgery day staying with them through the whole process, I started writing their ID numbers onto my hand so that I might ask to be with them. Funny thing is that by the end of the day many of the numbers had washed off. When I was asked to describe their deformity so that the medical person I was asking might recall which kid I was talking about, I couldn’t do it. I’d spent 45 minutes with the kid, together solving geometric puzzles, but I hadn’t noticed why they were here. With so many kids with clefts, I just stopped noticing.

Tomorrow we go to the hospital and families find out if their kids were selected. I am sure it will be powerful both for the joy and the sorrow. In Paraguay, the local team has psychologists to talk to each family about why their child was not selected, what they can do next, and able to refer them for services locally or helping them to understand the process for applying to come to the states for cases too difficult to be done in Paraguay.

Tomorrow is also the final day of getting the Operation and Pre & Post Op Rooms set up. Then Wednesday the surgeries begin. It will be 6 tables going all day for 5 days and days will be long–ten to twelve hours everyday.

Feeling so lucky to be here.

Smile. Be happy. Be happy you can!
P.S.: If you ever go to a small hospital where hundreds of people will be using just 2 toilets, bring toilet paper.


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Operation Smile In Paraguay