This past year, I embarked on a 12-day trip to Estelí, Nicaragua, as part of an Operation Smile medical mission team. Surrounded by medical volunteers from over 15 countries, I experienced a unique community comprised of individuals from different backgrounds and cultures. As one of two students within the mainly adult medical team, I was initially intimidated. However, I soon became comfortable around other team members, knowing we all had the same goal in mind: to provide comforting medical care to others in the global community.
I first became involved with Operation Smile, an organization that provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries in over 60 countries around the world, in my sophomore year. Believing in the mission of the organization, I recruited many of my peers with the hopes of spreading awareness and fundraising for the organization. In my senior year, I received my mission assignment to Estelí. Both excited and nervous, I prepared extensively for the medical mission in my role as an international student volunteer: I consolidated toys, games and activities for the patients, and assembled my health presentations for patients and their families. On the day of my departure, I was bubbling with excitement as I started my 22 hours of travel to Nicaragua.
The whole trip went by in a flash, but there are moments I will never forget. On the first night, in the pouring rain, a few volunteers and I moved beds from the hospital to the patient shelter. When we arrived at the shelter, there was already one family that had arrived early. As we started to unload over 100 beds, I noticed an extra helper – a 13-year-old patient followed behind me, carrying a bed of his own. Even as we insisted that he rest for the following day, he continued to help us move beds. After finishing, we profusely thanked him for his help, but instead he responded to us with his own gratitude for our service.
My time in the hospital was an eye-opening experience. Before each patient’s surgery, I comforted the young children with our team’s many toys and games. However, nothing prepared me for the moment when the children were separated from their parents. The parents remained stoic as the doctors took the wailing and screaming children into surgery. As soon as the children were out of sight, many parents broke down in tears, overcome with nerves and emotions. However, it was all worth it when one hour later, the families were reunited. Many parents were initially shocked at the sight of their child’s repaired lip, but soon after, overwhelming happiness set in.
I had many “firsts” throughout the mission. I saw plastic surgery for the first time, witnessed both cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, and stood before local students and patient families as a teacher presenting crucial health practices. Most important of all, I was able to address pressing health issues and put my past experiences in perspective with this worldwide adventure. I feel blessed to have been part of our wholly cooperative and compassionate international team.
Michael Chen’s experience in Nicaragua was coordinated entirely through Operation Smile, an international medical charity committed to helping improve the health and lives of children. This trip is just one example of a student finding a way to make a positive impact on our global community, beyond the School’s curriculum.