Saturday, July 6, 2013

Operation Smile - return from Africa

I recently returned from 10 days in the Congo (DRC) in the capitol city of Kinshasa, the old Leopoldville in the old country of Zaire (and the Belgium Congo, before that).
I was fortunate enough to go as a volunteer Operating Room nurse with Operation Smile, a volunteer organization which surgically repairs cleft palates and cleft lips in children, primarily.
   Our group of 40 was composed of Plastic Surgeons (4), Anesthesiologists (5), OR Nurses (4) and several recovery and pediatric nurses, and other integral members of a" traveling hospital."  We were able to occupy two operating rooms in a local hospital for the 5 days of surgery.  The other days involved screening hundreds of surgical candidates and setting up the areas of operation.  About 17 members of the team were from the USA and the others were from several other countries including Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, Italy, England and Ireland.
Waiting to hear if their child has been accepted for surgery
   About 126 kids and older patients were operated on to instantly change their lives to make a small change in their faces, yet to impact their social acceptance and self esteem in a big way.  The kids and parents were great.  I enjoyed working with the many hospital employees, nursing and medical students, and interns who aided us, and also learned from us.  On the other hand, we learned about the parents love for their children, their generosity and patience, and their eagerness to learn new things.

Donna and a child with cleft lip - before surgery
      I'd never been in Africa before, except for one day in Dakar, Senagal, on a tour in 1968.  I didn't know what to expect in Kinshasa.  We arrived at night so I couldn't see the lay of the land, and never saw the nearby famous, Congo River.  Our van ride to the hotel was ill-fated.  We broke down on the highway in the fast lane.  After tinkering with stuff under the van (while we sat without lights and everyone honking and barely missing us), the driver and assistant rolled the van backward down the hill until he could "pop the clutch" (I think).  We tried rolling back three times, each time I envisioned a horrible rear-end collision.  Finally it caught and we were on our way, only to have it happen again...loss of power.  This time we got off the road and they called a smaller van to start ferrying us on to the city.  That's about as scary as it got.  But we were warned of crime and the need for security measures while there.  We stayed in groups both to the hospital and to the restaurant for our evening meal, and back to the hotel.  We were warned never to take a taxi.  So everything went well.
Two operations going on at once
   The hospital days were very busy, very tiring, yet very rewarding. We had wonderful volunteer translators who spoke the local Lingala and French and made it possible to talk to the people.   It's heart-warming to see so many children have this transformational surgery. The children were so sweet and the parents so grateful for the help provided to their children.
     In the days of screening we saw people who had conditions of many years, that we couldn't treat, including burns from acid thrown at them, and a woman with her fingers hacked off by her husband.  Several had disfiguring tumors, and we were able to help one or two with smaller facial tumors.  I heard there is an International Charity with a ship that can offer help to those larger cases we couldn't do.  The organization is "Mercy Ships" of Texas, and the current ship is called  Africa Mercy.  It may dock at Pointe-Noire next year across the Congo river on the Atlantic, west of Brazzaville .  That's about all I know of that, but hopefully many in the Congo can get help there.
    Our days in Kinshasa were followed the tight routine of Work, Eat, Sleep.  But on the last day while waiting for our flights home at 8 pm,  we were able to rent a van to take us to the Bonobo Sanctuary.

 It's called the "Lola ya Bonobo" (Paradise for Bonobos in Lingala).  Bonobos are a separate species from Chimpanzees and are identified as our "closest" genetic cousin.  Indeed, the nursery at the sanctuary gave us a glimpse of orphans hugging and playing with their surrogate human mothers who devote time with them until they get older and can be released in the "teenage" area.
Surrogate mother with her bonobo babies

Surrogate mother with her "teen" kids
     In the teenage area one particular little guy had a wonderful time jumping onto the top of a pipe and balancing on one foot.  In addition he scooped water from a pool with his hollowed out orange, and drank water from the makeshift "cup".


 

 All the areas in the sanctuary are fenced off from humans and provide as wild of an environment as possible to live.  As I understand it, Bonobos were discovered in about 1928 and are only found in the DCR Congo.  Their habitat is surrounded by rivers, and it's said they can't swim well so evolved separately from Chimpanzees on the other sides of the rivers.  Now that lumbering is destroying their habitat and adults killed for bushmeat, the babies are sold as pets or abandoned.  This sanctuary seeks to provide a sanctuary for the homeless Bonobo, now endangered I think.  At any rate, this glimpse of Africa, out of the city, was never to be forgotten. 
    I returned to Hawaii after about 36 hours of air travel, including about 27 hours in airplane seats.  The trip seemed to help my herniated disc and sciatica pain, for what reason, I don't understand.  But after a week of jet-lag, I am looking forward to another trip to Africa.

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