Ethiopia, February 2010

In the words of Surgicorps Volunteer Melinda Handler:

Ethiopia was an exciting new destination for Surgicorps this February, 2010.

Dr Jack Demos and Dr Paul Kim once again performed operations on those who could not otherwise afford them. The two surgeons were assisted by a team of fourteen who accompanied them from the USA.

In order to be screened for possible care, many natives travelled from rural villages. Some walked up to two days just to reach a smaller city center. From there bus is standard transport, a ride that could last several days. The hospital was situated in the heart of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. It is hard to imagine the fear or unease that must lie within oneself upon such a journey, the uncertainty of newly chartered territory. Still, hope must be ever present for the slight chance at change. They arrive tired and weary into our care. We are told many, due to their physical deformity, are rarely looked at, talked to or smiled upon within their community. Our smiles are wide and hugs are warm. It takes time for them to trust and to tell their story.

Twenty eight patients received fifty one procedures successfully over the course of five days. The majority of cases were cleft lips and cleft palates. We saw more adults than children, which meant these birth defects lasted well into their 20’s and 30’s (some suffered past that point.) In more developed countries, a defect such as a cleft palate is rectified at birth or soon after. Imagine, living through adulthood with a large open cavity at the roof of your mouth. The simple act of eating, (chewing and swallowing) is nearly impossible. The majority of food slips through the open gap, at times funneling through the nose. A surgery such as this can last between 2 to 4 hours, yet brings about significant change.

Every day a particular experience tugged at our hearts. There was the young, sweet 4 year old girl with a cleft lip. She had become a sort of mascot for the team, full of personality and energy. Her spirit was contagious. The surgery however, was canceled the morning of, due to testing positive for Malaria. Her family was obviously devastated by the news but the young girl still managed to smile and spread joy.

Another occasion involved two preteen girls who kept their facial deformities covered by wearing a wrap exposing only their dark eyes and long beautiful braids. On one particular morning the hospital staff discovered lice on both their scalps. A decision was made to shave their heads to prevent spreading within the ward. The girls were saddened by the thought of losing their feminine locks and how it would only add to the torture of an already visual affliction. Members of our team provided them with colorful silk scarves bought from the local market to help soften the blow.

On any Surgicorps mission a volunteer cannot help but be moved and affected by personal stories such as these.

By week’s end our goals were accomplished and all 28 patients were discharged and provided with follow up care. Once again they began their long journeys home, this time perhaps leaving with more confidence than before and with a better outlook for tomorrow.

In the words of Helen Keller- “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”

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