Bringing a smile: Duo travels to Ethiopia on medical mission

Alicia Gossman-Steeves

In the developing world, a person born with cleft palate, cleft lip or other facial deformities will suffer not only from medical issues but also from social censure. That's why organizations like Operation Smile exist -- to bring a smile and to give life to people who otherwise would not be able to have one.

"The problem is no worse in developing countries than in developed countries, said Carol Lockhart, a teacher at Swink High School in Swink, Colo. "In a developed country the problem is taken care of soon after birth. A developed country can give the needed surgery because of the strength of its finances."

Lockhart and Swink junior Jolysa Gallegos recently traveled to Jimma, Ethiopia, on a 14-day medical mission with Operation Smile to help entertain children and adults who were awaiting the longed-for surgery. Children and adults who are eligible for the free surgery must sit for hours in hospital waiting rooms, so volunteers play games with them and draw pictures. They even share personal pictures and a little about their lives.

"Many of the people they helped are poor and can't go home so they hang around the hospital waiting," Lockhart said.

"Some traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) to get there and that was a big shock," Gallegos said. "Some came from Somalia. One little girl had an abscess on her cheek and had to be given antibiotics so that it would go down before she had the surgery. We were just cheering for her because she had come so far."

Cleft palate and cleft lip cause problems with breathing, talking and eating. Also, because the deformities are so prominent, they have a "huge psychological effect."

"One little boy wouldn't let me take a picture of him until he was in pre-op," Gallegos said. Another 15-year-old boy was eager to receive an education after his surgery. He had never been denied education, Lockhart said, but he had been made to feel "uncomfortable and remorseful about his appearance."

In Ethiopia, education is free to the public.

"The people are obsessed with education," Lockhart said. "They want to be engineers, architects and doctors to make their country better."

The cause of cleft palate and cleft lip is unknown. Some believe that the deformity may be caused by a lack of folic acid during pregnancy or because the mother smoked during pregnancy. Mothers of children receiving surgery are asked about their pregnancies. They are also asked why they believe their children were born with the deformity.

"The vast majority of people responded that it was the will of the true God or they believed that when the mother was pregnant, she saw someone with a cleft lip or palate," Lockhart said.

During their mission, Gallegos said that she played a lot of volleyball with the kids, using beach balls that they had brought.

"The Ethiopian children are natural volleyball players," Lockhart said. "They also play soccer, so they never catch the ball."

Funds to purchase toys, including bubbles, funny sunglasss and beach balls, were donated by local chapters of Operation Smile's Student Youth Programs. Both Swink School and Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colo. have chapters.

Gallegos and her partner Nicky from Colorado Springs had fun painting finger nails, an activity that the women from Somalia especially enjoyed. The people also enjoyed wearing paper crowns from Burger King.

"Nicky asked Burger King for donations and they gave her 80 crowns," Gallegos said. "Both parents and kids wanted the crowns."

"I also learned that the teddy bear is not a universal thing," Gallegos said. "We had brought stuffed animals and we wanted to give one to a little girl. When I gave it to the father he and the other men in the room started laughing at me. They didn't know what it was."

Gallegos got to watch a surgery. She and her partner also made presentations at local schools about hygiene and dental care. The children, Gallegos said, were very excited to receive toothbrushes and kept getting back in line to get more. The small group also toured a Missionaries of Charity Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes, an organization founded by Mother Theresa.

"They said no pictures," Gallegos said. "The sicknesses were so bad. It was a very tough situation and hard to accept the fact that the people were there because they were dying and they didn't have money."

Although there was not much chance for tourism, Lockhart and Gallegos learned much about the people and their surroundings. They found that wherever they went, the people "swarmed" them, some just wanting to touch them. One little boy, a street child in the marketplace, wouldn't let go of Gallegos' hand.

"It's hard to walk away from that," she said.

"The people are very proud of their country," Lockhart said. "Normal, everyday people are printed on their money because they believe that the future of the country lies in its people. They were very interested in us because we are blessed beyond measure. We didn't see any obvious discrimination. The parents loved their children and there was lots of love and acceptance in the hospital."

"They are a quiet and beautiful people," Gallegos said.

La Junta Tribune-Democrat (La Junta, Colo.)