(A piece of reflection by Michelle Chan, a young student volunteer)
My decision to volunteer for the mission was one I knew would take me out of my comfort zone on various levels. Firstly I would be in a foreign environment far from the comforts of home surrounded by 30 odd unfamiliar faces for a span of 9 days. Secondly, I would be interacting with numerous young patients with facial deformities and was unsure if I had the emotional maturity to handle that.
The screening day for me, was very overwhelming. The area our entire team was allocated to was packed with patients and their families. Amidst the chaos, I observed pockets of activity; translators painstakingly trying to get patients’ histories, some children being hysterical upon examination and members of our team going around to play with the children whose names were yet to be called. While keying in the handwritten information gleaned about patients from their charts into the electronic medical records database, I also learnt that some had travelled for 10 hours for the chance at a new smile. Such tenacity inspired me greatly.
We moved into the Department of Burn, Plastic, Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgery the following day and I was tasked with sorting the patients’ passport-sized pictures. I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of deformed faces that greeted me and felt deeply saddened. I had never encountered so many young children with cleft lips and palates in a single place. I was also filled with a sense of injustice; the very people who have limited access to clean water and sanitation and are unable to afford proper healthcare, are the same ones who are plagued by these unfortunate health related circumstances. The very thought that I had existed for a good 18 years in total oblivion to the plight of these people irked me and stirred within me a burning desire to do everything I could within my abilities for the patients and their families.
During the mission, I was also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to enter the Operation Room (OR). Watching the surgeries was personally, an eye-opening experience. It was my first time watching a surgery up close. Perhaps it was the overpowering smell of antiseptic in the OR where three surgeries took place concurrently or perhaps it was simply the blood and gore or perhaps even a combination of both that led me to eventually feel faint and have to lie down. In the process, I also acquired the nickname ‘little fainter’. Undeterred, I vowed to re-enter the OR the following day only to pass out again. Though frustration swelled up within me, it served as the driving force for me to survive at least one surgery. I was determined to prove to myself that watching a surgery was something I could handle. Thankfully, I experienced a huge sense of achievement and relief at the end of the day when I realised I was still lucid after watching another three surgeries!
Apart from a sense of personal achievement gained from observing the surgeries, it was extremely inspiring to see surgeons empowered to change their patients’ lives within an hour. It was also heartwarming to see everyone in the team working together tirelessly with the surgeons sometimes working through their lunch breaks to give as many children as possible a new lease of life.
What I took away from this mission was not simply experiences and friendships but insights about life. As much as the purpose of the mission was to bring smiles to the people of Mandalay through medical expertise and support, it was really the love for people and the profound desire to help them beyond the call of duty that lies at the heart of all the good work done. I am terribly looking forward to the next mission and the privilege to make a difference to the lives of many children who are still without a beautiful smile to call their own.