THE LIFE OF A CHILD CHANGED FOREVER

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
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Trip End May 12, 2008


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Flag of Madagascar  ,
Friday, December 7, 2007

"THE LIFE OF A CHILD CHANGED FOREVER"
 
You may have heard the story of the starfish flinger...
 
As the old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a young man ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. Finally catching up with the youth, he asked him why he was doing this.
The answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun.
"But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish," countered the other. "How can your effort make any difference?"
The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves.
"It made a difference to that one," he said.
- Anonymous

I have always valued that story, but never knew that one day I might make a difference to one.
 
Living in a developing world we time and again encounter people with unimaginable deformities. I can clearly recollect so many disfigurations and deformities that are beyond belief, such a burden for the individual to carry through life. I try not to look too long but I am sure they are used to the shocked expression on others faces. The worst is to see a child with a facial deformity. A life unimaginable- certain to be a struggle, an outcast, laughed at by others or pointed at. Growing up in America such deformities seem to be nonexistent thanks to accessible and state-of-the-art medical care.
 
In our past year and a half living here in Madagascar we have frequently seen children with cleft lip/palate along the roads, in the markets and towns. It's heartbreaking- but what can we do? A few weeks ago our answer came.  Operation Smile, an amazing team of dedicated and hard-working medical volunteers arrived in Tamatave and began "Changing Lives One Smile at a Time."
 
So, in the past few weeks, along with receiving a $7,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy to build a Community & Youth Center in our town (also going to the Capital with our local counterparts to meet the U.S. Ambassador for a ceremony), managing an association to run a tree nursery, planting corn before the rains come & trying to educate locals on slash and burn agriculture, we managed to get all our friends, neighbors, health workers and government officials involved in helping us to locate as many children as possible in the area with cleft lip/palate.  Through the smoky haze of the burning forests and under the intense tropical sun, we pedaled and pushed our bikes on eroded and battered "roads" into the countryside to find the children.  Two girls were identified less than 24 hours before we left, Aaron and our friend rode through the heat and hiked a mountain to locate the families, arriving back to town drenched in sweat and carrying two photos of girls whose lives might be forever changed.
 
Tuesday night, one by one, the parents hesitantly knocked on our gate, holding their child they came into our home and I explained the travel plans to them; we would travel over 300 km to the East Coast where life changing surgery might be performed. They were nervous, never having spent time away from their town and never traveled so far, yet they were eager to help their children. They had just arrived from the countryside, uncomfortable in my presence; their only question was regarding payment for transport. I ensured them all cost would be covered- they wouldn't need to pay anything.
 
Thursday morning we all arrived at the hospital in Tamatave, a place that became very familiar during the following week, to wait for the screening process. Everywhere there were potential patients- mothers with babies, boys, girls, teens, adults- people of all ages with facial deformities. All day we waited in the heat, the kids were quiet, so much is new, they have never before seen such a large city, been in a hospital or seen a doctor. Maybe they are still in shock and scared as the foreign doctors take their heart rate, look in their mouths, snap photos and check their teeth.  
 
Saturday we returned to the hospital to hear the names of those selected. A sick feeling swept over us as numbers were called out. The parents stared ahead, waiting to hear that one number. Finally three of ours were called in a row, the parents shouting out that they were present and rushing up through the crowd to enter the building, clenching their child's hand. The first day of patients had been called. Jon and Sandrine were still amongst the large crowd, my stomach was tied in knots. The atmosphere was tense, there were too many for all to be selected. Sandrine turned and watched from the crowd as her friend, Filipine, walked to the hospital with her green medical folder in hand, ready to receive pre-surgery instructions. I looked up at her father and his eyes were glassed over, his face stoic and stared straight ahead.  I looked at Aaron and he had the same sickened look on his face, this was so intense, I could feel my body tighten, what if they are not chosen?! They started calling numbers again for Monday's surgeries, starting with low numbers..1,4,6, 12,.. then jumped to 90s and soon 100s. Sandrine was 116, Jon 118. Suddenly 116 was called out in French, they ran forward laughing, I sighed in relief and next was 118, my gaze affixed with Aaron's, both our eyes were glassy, filled with emotion and we laughed! 
 
So over the following week our days were consumed at the hospital. Each morning, we'd wake early, walk to the hospital, check on "our kids", get them meals, talk with the families, help translate, and assist until evening.  Over the following week we also became a family- cooking and sharing meals, living together, watching the kids, playing UNO, talking, experiencing new things together, caring for each other and supporting each other. It was quite intense having 5 kids who have never even been in a hospital have life changing surgery in a 48 hour period. Parents were obviously nervous, but so compassionate; fathers caring tenderly for their children, preparing their beds, hydrating them with juice, administering medications, and not leaving their sides even to eat. Aaron & I became the caretakers of the parents, bringing them coffee and tea, bread, rice and soup & ensuring they understood the nurses orders and had what they needed for their stay. 
 
Aaron witnessed each child's operation and was with them when they fell asleep and woke up from the anesthesia.  He watched as the parents were brought in to see their "new" child, their eyes affixed on their child, shocked expressions of joy and amazement. 
 
As the kids recovered we took them to the markets to see the local products, goods and fruit of the sea- the men laughed in amazement at the squid and couldn't believe the size of the fish. We took the girls clothes shopping & quickly spoiled them. We visited the beach where they saw, touched and sat on horse for the first time, built sandcastles and watched the waves wash them away, buried Aaron in the sand and watched ships come into port. The men caught crabs in the sand and they all ran around giggling at the sight of this mysterious critter with a big pinching claw!
 
The kids healed quickly and stitches were dissolving, no longer did people stare in astonishment as we walked around in our group. With over 130 patients receiving surgery, the operation was the talk of the town. People told us it was a gift from God and that the Operation Smile staff was given by God. It was without a doubt the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of. I cherished the look on the parent's faces as they stared at their child with a sparkle in their eye and a smile that continuously illuminates their face. To walk past the recovery room and see an 18 year old staring into a mirror is a most powerful sight and to hear Jon erupt with laughter when he caught sight of himself in a car mirror is absolutely priceless, all memories that Aaron and I will carry for life.
 
Everyone was relieved when it was time to head home, they were anxious to get home to their families, to see their rice fields and breathe the country air. After hours and hours of riding, we started to wind through the mountain range that they call home. Men walking along the roads were carrying familiar tools, kids were wearing familiar dress, the trees were like those of home and the houses looked like theirs. The van erupted with laughter; they said they could smell Anosibe An'Ala. We arrived late in the evening; they all stayed in town and came to our house the next morning for final medical advice from us and goodbyes. We decided to accompany Filipine, Sandrine & their fathers back to their town about 7 km away. As we started walking along the red dirt road, we began to pass people coming from their town. Everyone stopped and couldn't believe their eyes. Some joked that the father's had found new kids. It was so awesome to see the father's faces beam with joy as they looked at their daughters.  The little girls are still so shy, would habitually try to cover their mouths and squeeze my hands tightly as people moved in for a closer look.
 
Two hours later we approached their town, Andre looked out into the distance of a rice field, saw his wife and whistled to her. She began running through the paddies and fields with her infant son tied to her back. She looked at her daughter, smiled and was speechless. We went to their one room wooden house with thatched roof and it quickly filled with family and friends to see Sandrine and hear of her story. Aaron and I came in and sat on woven mats on the floor (the only furniture in the house was one bed.)  Everyone was quiet and shy, just smiling and laughing.
 
On the way to Filipine's house we passed her new school. (the school had just opened the Sunday before the screening, the head of the schools was there and saw the 2 girls, the next day we were telling him about Operation Smile and he told us he had just seen 2 girls with cleft lip. The next day Aaron and a friend rode to their town, found them, two days later they were in a taxi with us to Tamatave and the rest I guess is history!) The teacher saw us and ran out, her face was one huge smile and behind her ran all the school children with their chalk and slates still in hand. Suddenly Filipine was surrounded like a movie star, with her new clothes, flip-flops, fancy braids and new face.  The kids looked at her in amazement, jaws literally dropped.  Next we went through the muddy rice fields so Felix could see how his crop is doing and then began the intense hike over a mountain (literally) to get to his parents. After 45 minutes of climbing and sweating we reached the little house and walked in to meet her grandfather. He was extremely gracious, giving praise to God and reached out for Filipine's hand to hold- he is blind from the cataracts on his eyes. Next her uncle came in and kissed her and the father began to tell stories of the trip. His first story was about all the white people he saw- doctors and nurses. Suddenly his mother ran into the house, fell into his arms calling out his name and crying and then went silent. They ran to get her water and rubbed her back. She started to move again and was crying. Rejoicing that her family had returned, she reached out to her "new" granddaughter. She was disheveled from running back to the house from the fields and still had a basket around her waist filled with rice seeds. She looked at Aaron and I and announced that we were now her family because we had taken care of hers when they were far from home.  Tears welled up in my eyes and we just smiled. She wanted to give us rice and bananas (as the traditional "fruit of the road" gift), but we said it was not necessary that Filipine with her new face was the fruit of the road.
 
In my past 30 years of life I can think of no greater reward, nothing that I have been a part of that has had such an impact on someone's life. Thanks to Operation Smile and caring people, five poor children from the countryside, kids who have never before seen a paved road, never ridden in a vehicle, never eaten at a restaurant, never seen a horse, airplane, train or boat or had never experienced the awe of standing on a beach looking out to sea, had their lives dramatically changed forever. 
 
Looking for a Christmas gift for someone? Give something that will make a real difference, consider donating to Operation Smile. This is just the story of 5 children; imagine if every child was able to experience such a miracle. www.worldjourneyofsmiles.org

Thank you to Westminster Bible Church and everyone else who is donating to cover the cost of this project.
 
Keep smiling,
Jenny & Aaron
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Comments

judy_sa
judy_sa on

You're stars!!!
Aaron & Jenny, Your story is beautifully written and gives me 'goose-bumps'. You are the true stars here... without your actions, love, care and compassion 'your children' would not have been afforded the opportunity of new smiles... You made huge personal (and financial) sacrifices to assist the families. You also willingly helped us all in many other aspects of the mission - translating etc etc. Your selfless dedication is truly inspirational and will be forever appreciated. Thank you for being you!!! Sunshine & Smiles, always, Judy -xxx

namill01
namill01 on

Hits home
Thanks Jenny and Aaron for not only creating awareness through your beautiful stories and on the ground efforts, for assisting Op Smile throughout screening and surgery week, and for staying with the families and caring for them throughout the whole process but for reminding me again that it all comes down to one child, one adult, one story, one changed life.

Op Smile will be back in May and we hope that you will join us again to share the journey.

You are a beautiful couple and on behalf of all of us at Op Smile thank you!

See you soon,
nat


Natalie Miller
Regional Director, Southern Africa
Operation Smile
Tel: (021) 481 9165
Fax: (021) 481 9133
Cell: 076 293 6835
E-mail: nmiller@operationsmile.org
Website: www.operationsmile.org

kgarrity
kgarrity on

a beautiful story
I am a operation smile nurse looking to join a team to madagascar in 2008. Your story was heartfelt, sincere and beautiful. Thankyou for portraying Op. Smiles mission in such an amazing way! kim

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