Operation Smile – guest post from our patient Di Leal

My name is Di Leal and I am a sister in the Operating Theatres at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds. 

I am also a volunteer with the children’s charity, Operation Smile, a US based organisation which provides surgical care and treatment to children (and some adults!) with facial deformities, mainly cleft lip and palate, in developing countries. Without charities like Operation Smile these children would not have access to safe surgical treatment.

I recently travelled to Lilongwe in Malawi as part of an international team made up of about 60 volunteers from several different countries including Australia, US, Sweden, Canada, Guatemala, South Africa and with 6 volunteers from the UK. The team included a wide range of specialties from surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses, dentists, speech therapists, play specialists, photographers and the co-ordinators who manage this diverse bunch!

My role is OR Nurse so I manage the Operating Room, helping both the anaesthetists and the surgeons and, as this mission was an educational one, also teaching and supervising the local nurses in their specialist clinical role. 

During this mission we were able to treat 128 patients ranging in age from 6 months to 78 years in 2 days of screening and 5 intense days of operating! This is life changing surgery, which we very much take for granted here in the UK, but is not available to many, many people in developing countries. 

It takes 45 minutes and costs just £150 to treat 1 child and is often a matter of survival for some babies. As children, or families of children with clefts, in addition to their physical deformities, they are often outcast from their community and socially isolated and unable to attend school and receive an education.

Operation Smile UK has recently received a very large donation from the Kentown Wizard Foundation, a major supporter of children’s surgical programmes, and they have launched the programme Cleft Free Malawi, which aims to clear the back log of untreated cleft patients throughout the country and also, to teach the local medical staff the skills required to treat their own patients in the future.

As a volunteer, I feel very privileged to be a part of this wonderful organisation, and have the opportunity to make a contribution where it really makes a difference.