At my first Operation Smile mission in Lima I worked with a woman named Margot. Five years later, I was living in Brazil when I saw there was going to be another Operation Smile mission in Fortaleza, Brazil. I looked online and saw that Margot was running the show. I emailed her and asked if I could visit and maybe do some volunteer work.
“Yes!” She said. “We don’t have a job for you at the moment, but come on up.”
I didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket. I tried to get a train but the bus to the train was delayed so I missed the train. I went back to my apartment, looked online and saw there was a flight the next morning. That night and into the morning I deliberated about what I should do.
At the last possible moment I hailed a taxi to the airport. I rocked up to the airport and looked at the queue for the airline. The queue was ten or fifteen people deep. I knew that by the time I got through it would have been too late to make the flight. There was an airline concierge desk to my right, I went up to the woman at the desk and told her I needed to be on the flight to Fortaleza.
“The flight leaves in forty-five minutes.” The woman said. “We can’t sell you a ticket.”
I squared up to the woman. “I have to be on that flight to Fortaleza. I’m a doctor and they need me there.” It was one of those moments where I lied full blast, but I knew it was for a good cause so I was okay with it.
“What type of doctor?”
“A plastic surgeon.” I replied. “I repair cleft lips and palates for children.”
I’m not a doctor but they didn’t ask for any proof, which was strange because I had dread locks at the time and didn’t look like a doctor. But they sold me the ticket. I didn’t have enough money so I had to charge the ticket – I knew I could always make more money but I might not have another opportunity like this. They ushered me through security and held the plane. I made the flight.
Since it was so last minute I hadn't contacted Margot to let her know I was coming. I showed up at the hospital with piece of paper with the hospital address written on it. Eventually I tracked down Margot and she let me crash on her couch. But there was still no job for me. There was someone there responsible for patient imaging, but he needed support so I jumped in and filled his role.
I have to back up and tell you how Operation Smile actually works. There are different phases to the mission. First they send a scouting mission months in advance to check out the hospital and speak with locals. Then they set up advertisements letting people know of the free services that will be offered.
The actual surgeries typically last five days – usually Monday through Friday. The screening process typically occurs two to three days before the surgeries and that’s where I usually volunteered. During screening we’d look at maybe 400 to 500 kids and eventually pick 125 to 130 to perform surgery on. During screening there was a lead plastic surgeon, a bunch of nurses, a pediatrician, dentist, speech therapist and so on and so forth. The families would go through the stations: check in, nurse records, speech therapist, dentist, pediatrician, plastic surgeon and then me. They would give me a file with a number on it. The Mom or kid would hold the number and I’d take a straight-on picture and then a profile picture.
After doing it for a while I suggested enhancements and everyone agreed my ideas were a valuable addition to the process. They refined the process and named my position the PIT (Patient Imaging Technician) and they continue to use that refined process and role to this day. I can proudly say I helped to get that program going.
One of the cool things about Operation Smile is that you can do an hour surgery and literally change the course of someone’s life. There are not many other things where you can have such an immediate and drastic impact. Between Peru, Brazil, Honduras and Morocco I probably worked with over 1,400 children. I wasn’t a surgeon repairing cleft palates but I’m happy I played a role in making the children’s lives better.
Julian currently teaches yoga, meditation and wellness to adults and children (www.juliandevoe.com). He also creates art out of found objects and showcases them on his Instagram account (trashintheworld). He lives in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
Goose Chronicles Outtakes:
“How did you keep a positive perspective when seeing so much negativity?”
“There is a Viktor Frankl quote, “That which is to give light must endure the burning.” There is something special and magical about the mission. The mission is alive. It’s a functioning member of the team. We are here for these kids and whatever emotions come up for us we need to put to the side. Most of the doctors learned to put aside the emotions but the rest of us would usually feel the emotional impact of what we were doing. The space for breaking down was allowed because everyone recognized that what we were doing was intense, emotional and stressful and we’re emotional beings. When you have a breakdown – or break open – it shows that you care, so when it happens we gave each other the time and space to process it.”
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