Volunteer to Change a Child’s Life

By: Anthony Bonazzo, MD, Nurse.com New England Sales Manager

Last week I was blessed to go on my second medical mission to Quito, Ecuador, with the nonprofit volunteer organization where I serve as an executive board member. Medical Missions for Children is based in Woburn, MA, and has more than 375 active MDs, RNs, dentists and non-medical personnel who dedicate their time to help save children’s lives in 12 countries around the world. Its volunteers have been performing life-saving cleft lip, palate and dental surgery in under developed countries for more than 20 years and has completed 21,000 surgeries since its inception.

On this trip, I had the pleasure of escorting each child, with their mother, father or guardian, to the OR area so they could say their pre-op goodbye.  After each surgical procedure, I would reunite the parents or guardians with their child in the PACU.  The ranges of emotions in these reunions were intense with tears of joy often flowing from everyone, including me.  The DRs, RNs and non-medical volunteers were full of pride knowing that this child’s life was changed for the better. The outcome would have been much different if the child hadn’t received free reconstructive surgery.

A week later, one post-op child reunion still played in my head. Yoritza, an 8-month-old girl, had a bilateral cleft lip and palate. She was so severely disfigured that she required an extensive and precise surgical procedure, which lasted about three hours.  During the procedure, I left the OR every so often to reassure Yoritzas’ mother that everything was going well.

After the operation, I walked into the PACU and was amazed at how different (and beautiful) Yoritza looked. I kept looking at the pre-op photos in disbelief. Dr. Ward, full-time faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College and the division chief of Pediatric Otolaryngology, performed the surgery with exceptional skill and technique.  He’s always been one of our gifted lead surgeons, but he proved himself again on this extremely difficult case.  I pulled myself together and left to get Yoritza’s mother.  I told her that her daughter was beautiful and that she looked so different than before the surgery.

8-month old Yoritza before and after reconstructive surgery. Photo courtesy of Medical Missions for Children.

Still trying to keep it together and preparing Mom to see her child for the first time, I led Yoritza’s mother into the PACU.  She was reunited with her groggy child but something was wrong — her reaction was not the same as all the parents. There were no the tears of joy, no words of thanks, or remarks that her child looked beautiful. Instead, Yoritza’s mother stared at her child without recognizing her.  In disbelief she kept asking, “is this really my child?” Finally I had to say to her, “See! She is wearing the same outfit that you brought her to the OR today.” I was taken back at how different her reaction was from what we had experienced after the other surgeries.

Why didn’t Yoritza’s mother jump for joy or even smile?

It took some time for me to realize that this mother had loved her child just as she was —regardless of the disfigurement. Although we handed her child back to her no doubt looking better, Yoritza now looked nothing like the child her mother had loved for the past eight months.

I felt sad that she was not able to share in the joy and happiness we were feeling.  I wanted to ask her if she was not happy that this gift would save Yoritza’s life.

The next day as the rounds were completed, I pulled one of our RNs aside and asked very enthusiastically, “Is Yoritza’s mom happier now? Did she accept her daughter’s new look?” The nurse responded that she was slowly getting there.  Dejected and with nothing more to say, I walked away.

I desperately wanted to see this mother love her daughter just as she did before the surgery, but I didn’t get the opportunity. However, I did leave Ecuador knowing this little girl’s life would be changed forever for the better.

Thank you for letting me share my story with you. If you feel inspired to change the world for the better, one child’s smile at a time, I would encourage you to contact Medical Missions for Children. Do you already support a volunteer organization? Tell me about the good work you do in the comments box – I’d love to read your stories.

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