Monday, September 20, 2010

Operation Smile

I have spent the last week here in Antananarivo translating for Operation Smile, a medical NGO that does operations on people with cleft palate. Mostly babies, some older children, and a few adults had the surgery--a total of 179 patients had the surgery in the past week.

I am currently pretty exhausted and hard to imagine I am about to go from the busy fast-paced not-much-sleep week back to the village where I spend the days trying to figure out what to do with myself. I hope that my cat remembers me and that my garden isn't dead, but really I just feel somewhat anxious about the culture shock that will hit me this afternoon, going from here to there...hopefully that feeling will fade once I get back "home."

I think all the weight of the week is just hitting me--the part that was hard like all the needles (yes, I watched and assisted as IVs were taken out of small babies)and constantly having crying babies all around, to the part that was profound, like all of the children that were just so changed through this operation. Each day's activities kept me busy, translating for the doctors and nurses, forcing kids to drink juice, handing out antibiotics and searching for a way to explain everything in Malagasy, so busy that I would almost forget the significance of all that was happening in their lives. Then it would hit me and I couldn't let myself feel it too much or I'd be overwhelmed and just probably cry!

One mom with about a four year old boy did make me cry. I think I was storing up all my reaction to the needles, to the witnessing of kids' pain and tears, to the exhaustion of working 12 hours a day and sleeping in the noisy Peace Corps hostel... Then there was this mom who came upstairs from the operating room with her son, who was around 4 years old. Much of the time, the family members come from the surgery looking anxious, wondering if their kid is alright, or still in shock that this has all just happened. Add to that people who have come from far away in a village and are dealing with their own shock of being in the city, around all these white people with their fancy medical instruments, gauze, medicines, white coats. But this mom had no anxiety. She arrived in post-op with her face just beaming with joy. I turned around from helping the bed next to her son's and saw her smiling, and asked her "Faly be ve ianao?" (You're really happy, aren't you?!) And she nodded. I went to give her a hug, and she just grabbed me into such a strong, wonderful hug, tears were coming to our eyes.

Yesterday was the last day of surgery. Each patient has a chart with their picture in it, taken during the pre-screening days. One beautiful 12 year old girl was sitting in her bed recovering with her family. I opened up the folder and showed them the picture of her from before the surgery. They looked at it and at her with a kind of awe.

Everyone was so thankful, so grateful. Of course, because we Peace Corps volunteers were the translators, the ones who could actually talk to them, we got to hear all of these thanks. It felt good to do something so useful, so basic. It was also so good to work with such amazing people. The nurses were wonderful, I especially enjoyed working with two from Namibia, one from Virginia, and one from South Africa. The Namibian woman was so calm, kind, and good with the children. We became friends and shared bits and pieces of stories from our lives as we went together from bed to bed, her checking vitals and me translating.

It's been one of those weeks that will stay with me, that made me stronger and taught me about the strength that people have, mothers and fathers and their children. There is much more that I could write, but I must begin getting ready to go home. I have a bus ride and a bike ride ahead of me today, lots of time to think about it all on the ride home.