Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping front-line health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.
It was the last day of the July 2021 medical mission in the UAE. Some of the medical volunteers, students, and coordinators had gathered in the staff room after a tiring but rewarding day. Someone suggested playing a game of I-spy-with-my-little-eye. The most enthusiastic player was, of course, Dr. Eeva.
Dr. Eeva-Liisa, more popularly known as simply Dr. Eeva, joined Operation Smile UAE’s medical team in 2012. Since then, she has been contributing to the organisation with her arsenal of experience and her never-ending, lighthearted jokes.
Working as a pediatrician and neonatologist, Dr. Eeva is one of the most indispensable members of the medical team during missions. Prior to the medical mission, she makes sure that patients are fit to undergo surgery. This includes making sure the babies are growing healthily, have had all their vaccinations, and are free from infection.
But Dr. Eeva’s role does not end there.
“My personal interest in pediatrics is young children’s feeding problems, [which includes] breastfeeding and how to transition from breastfeeding to normal eating. Babies with cleft palate and cleft lip quite often have feeding problems. So I’m always looking out for babies, making sure that they learn [how to feed] and that their parents understand how important proper nutrition is at the proper age,” Dr. Eeva explained.
From volunteering in Pakistan during flood relief to organising 3 multidisciplinary teaching trips to Sri Lanka, Dr. Eeva has always been driven towards serving people. It was the same passion that drew her to Operation Smile.
“I love talking to the parents, explaining to them what is happening and what is to be expected. Every moment you spend with the parents is precious because you have a chance to make their lives better,” said Dr. Eeva with a smile in her voice.
Currently working in the UAE as chief medical officer at a children’s rehabilitation centre, Dr. Eeva is a familiar face at Operation Smile UAE. She has attended all 6 of the UAE missions and an international mission in Manila, Philippines.
“Every mission, every time you do something, is special. Each mission has different aspects that are interesting,” Dr. Eeva shared.
Having worked with Operation Smile in the UAE for a long time, Dr. Eeva has many stories to share. She has seen people who have evolved with Operation Smile and people who have had to leave the Emirates to work elsewhere.
She dropped a few words of wisdom for medical professionals who intend to start volunteering.
“Be enthusiastic. Ask a lot of questions. And remember, whatever plans you have, they will never work,” she laughed and then continued, “You have to be flexible enough to follow other plans. We work with people and people work differently.”
Until we can open our in office book sale to the public again we are selling a selection of books on Facebook. Please join the OSUAE Online Book Sale group to see our book selection and reserve for pick-up and payment at the Operation Smile UAE office
All proceeds go towards providing free, safe surgeries to children with cleft conditions.
Operation Smile UAE has had a long-lasting relationship with New York University, Abu Dhabi. Strengthening that bond, in the March 2022 mission at Burjeel Medical City, three NYUAD students came on board. They all came in with curious minds and compassionate hearts and left with a bag of memories and lifelong lessons.
Tatiana, majoring in Biology, joined the medical mission as a Medical Records Assistant. She had always been aware of Operation Smile through alumni and developed an interest in its work. The name was always familiar to her so when she saw an opening in the medical mission, she took that as a sign and went for it.
Faisal, majoring in Biology, helped out as a Patient Imaging Technician. He particularly related to Operation Smile’s work as he hasfamily members with cleft conditions. Since he attended high school in AbuDhabi, he was well-acquainted with the organization. When the opportunity to participate in a medical mission came by, he knew it was meant for him and applied right away.
Alex, majoring in Biology, also assisted as a Patient Imaging Technician. Unlike Tatiana and Faisal, Alex wasn’t really aware of Operation Smile’s work. He found out about it through a job posting and was drawn to the opportunity.
For all of them, the fact that they were able to get some experience in a medical setting but also have the aspect of helping people was perfect.
When asked about their experience at the medical mission, Tatiana mentioned how she always has had an ‘up down’ relationship with medicine.
She said, “When you get immersed into the technical aspect of medicine, you forget why you initially wanted to do medicine. So, this was wonderful as it reminded me of why I chose this as a career path for me.”
Tatiana particularly loved the collaborative environment and the fact that she was making an impact.
“I loved existing in such a dynamic environment where you’re not doing things just for the sake of doing it and you lose track of time,” she said.
The exposure of talking to doctors was an insightful one. She left feeling inspired and connected a lot of her moments back to her home country, Lebanon.
Faisal answered by saying, “Ilearned more in these past few days than I have in months.”
He got the opportunity to discuss a surgery which he found fascinating. Moreover, seeing the dramatic change in patients and parents made him realizethe sheer impact of Operation Smile.
“It really puts things in perspective,” he said, “We spend the entire week stressed about exams but things like this just make you realize that there are so many other beautiful things.”
He enjoyed seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes in prepping patients for surgery. He loved the fact that Operation Smile UAE was so accepting and was filling in the gaps in the healthcare system.
Reminiscing about the mission, Tatiana realized that it doesn’t take a lot for people to make a change.
“It just takes a few people who have the skills and capabilities to say yes,” she further said, “Medicine is seen as such a lucrative job but just seeing doctors who want to do this because it’s a calling is inspiring.”
Faisal added to that by saying “People devoting themselves to helping other people is way more than just a profession. It becomes part of your identity.”
Alex answered, “We woke up at 5:40 am and came here and all the surgeries were done by 2 pm. Look at the number of things you can get done by waking up early. You literally changed the lives of 6 people.“
He further elaborated, “With the right objective and the right mindset and a little bit of investment, you can really make a difference.”
For Tatiana, she was particularly struck by how each and every person remembered each patient’s name.It’s a small detail but signifies a lot. “Just the fact that you follow these people so closely throughout their lifetimes is so fulfilling and so inspiring. This is the kind of medical professional and person I eventually want to be,”she said.
We certainly don’t know what the future holds but their ultimate goal is to get into medical school, set up an NGO-like Operation Smile, and make an impact through their work.
For anyone thinking about joining Operation Smile, here’s what Tatiana had to say:
“Go for it and don’t be afraid to ask questions! I think compassion is the most important thing and if you’re here then you’re the right person to be here.”
Just like every volunteer, this medical mission created a hugeimpact on them and has prepared them for the future.
Whether it was Tatiana’s infectious laugh or Faisal’s intriguing conversations, or Alex’s Korean talk with student volunteers, they all brought something special to the mission.
Nurses stand as vital members of the Medical team during a mission, providing our patients with their expertise and empathy.
Throughout each mission day, our nurses work around the clock doing checks on each patient almost every 15 minutes, working pre and post operation, whilst simultaneously showing compassion and kindness.
A nurse’s job ranges from a variety of sections. It can involve making sure the patients have the correct medical records to helping the parents learn the correct post operative care. A mission site without nurses would be a mission site incomplete.
Meet four of our nurses who volunteered at the June 2021 mission in the UAE: Amal, Sharif, Fitz and Laura.
For each of them, volunteering with Operation Smile stood as an opportunity that helped them not only further develop their skills but to also grow as people.
Fitz, who specialises in the pediatric ICU, couldn’t pass up the chance to volunteer in his first mission, working mainly in post op care during the three days alongside some of our veteran operation smile nurses and pediatricians.
“This is my first time taking care of patients with cleft conditions, I’m very new but I’m very excited.”, said Fitz enthusiastically on the first mission day.
“ I’m very lucky to have the operation smile team to support me, especially Dr. Eeva.” Laura said, “my experiences in terms of critical thinking, problem solving and communication is what is significant in patient care and I have those skills.”
Sharif completed 7 missions this June, attending 2 international missions- one in Morocco and one in Jordan- and 5 local missions in the UAE. Outside of Operation Smile, Sharif works as a Senior Nursing Educations Officer, but during the missions, he has worked in pre and post op and as the clinical coordinator for the June 2021 UAE mission.
Amal, a pediatric nurse – learned the “importance of communication and getting the message through” to the patients in order to ensure they had all the information necessary to follow through with their postoperative care, especially when working with a variety of different languages.
Nurses stand as the bridge between doctors and patients, constantly keeping the flow of knowledge, information and practice running. Without having the continual repetition of instructions it is likely that patients forget what to do and what not to do, thus nurses help establish confidence within their patients.
Volunteering on these missions allow these medical volunteers to tap into the nurturing side of care, being able to focus on the real reason they became nurses.
Sharif warmly stated, “It’s a different perspective. You’re still doing what you’ve studied and what you’re experienced in, however you’re doing it just to help people.”
On her first mission, Laura was able to connect with one of the patients and follow along through their entire journey. “The relationship between myself, Rose, and her mum developed over the two days. I felt a real connection with the family. I felt a real connection with her. When she was anxious, I was a little bit anxious.”, Laura remembered fondly. “It was such a lovely experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.” Rose’s mom still keeps in touch with Laura to this day, frequently sending updates about Rose.
For Sharif, volunteering allows him to step away from the busy hustle of day-to-day life and focus on delivering the best possible care to the patients around him. He states, “Everyone’s coming just to serve,” which enables each person to forget any other motivations to do their job other than the basic notion of providing care. “It’s a very humbling process for anyone.”
When each of the nurses were asked whether they would continue their journey with Operation Smile, all of them enthusiastically responded with a definite yes.
“It restores your faith in humanity”, said Sharif.
Every moment has been a surprise for Rachelle since the birth of her first born son: Deron.
Deron, a beautiful and energetic 2 year old, began an unexpected journey in Rachelle’s life. Looking forward to a normal pregnancy, Rachelle never saw the challenges coming her way. All her prenatal scans had shown up normal, with almost no indication of a cleft or an extra chromosome.
Even though cleft conditions were not unknown to Rachelle, as her cousin’s daughter and neighbours had cleft conditions; it was never discussed nor talked about. “We don’t talk about it much because we might hurt the family, the mother if you talk about why they have this or why they have that”, Rachelle said.
‘Everything was a surprise to us, with the cleft and the extra chromosome’, recalled Rachelle.
Deron alongside his cleft condition was also born with down syndrome. Rachelle expressed that as a first time mother she refused to believe that this had happened. ‘I was in denial’, she said.
Prior to Deron, Rachelle had everything planned and stuck to a certain routine with little flexibility. But now things had changed. The expectations that she had set for herself and her first born had shifted.
When Deron was born, he had to stay in the NICU(neonatal intensive care unit) for a few more days for further observation making it even harder for Rachelle to absorb. Her worries revolved around how he would be accepted by those surrounding him, Rachelle would wonder, ‘How is he going to be embraced by the people around him(when he grows up)?’
It was through this journey that the support of her family and especially her husband had really come through. ‘He’s(her husband) very supportive when it comes to everything’, Rachelle said fondly.
Eventually she was able to welcome Deron as he is. ‘I was able to overcome the fear that I might not be able to give him the life he needs’, revealed Rachelle.
Rachelle and her husband, Donnie had begun their research into the condition and organizations that might help Deron and answer any questions they had, and that’s when they came across Operation Smile. They immediately sent across an email and soon became part of the UAE June 2021 mission.
Although this was not Derons first surgery- his previous being to repair his soft palate- Rachelle was still anxious and nervous. When Deron came out of surgery all Rachelle wanted to do was hold Deron. ‘I wanted to hug him tight, but I knew I had to compose myself.’, said Rachelle.
Deron sparked a new beginning for Rachelle to grow as a person, learning from all from her experiences. ‘When I had Deron I became very patient, I matured in a sense’, recalled Rachelle. She realised that life was too short to be spent constantly worrying, but rather to embrace every moment by taking a step back and understanding what her son needs.
Today, Deron is a very happy boy, always expressing himself and developing into a strong and receptive person. Although his journey in facing the world has only begun, the growing social media presence in the world today makes Rachelle a little more confident that Deron’s extra chromosome won’t stop him from being accepted into society.
When asked to say a few final words, Rachelle said, ‘I’m very thankful and I’ll be forever grateful to each and everyone because without the organization it wouldn’t have been easy for us.’
After months of prayers, two nights in labour, and 35 minutes before her mother’s birthday ended, baby Khadija arrived. This baby was indeed special.
As Aishabi held her precious baby, many questions swam in her head: Would the baby be fine? How will we feed her? Will the gap in the roof of her mouth heal on its own?
This baby had been the talk for months. Her brothers couldn’t wait to meet her and she already had her dad wrapped around her little finger. The pre-natal scans didn’t indicate anything to be concerned about and everything had gone smoothly. Even at birth, things seemed normal. The pediatrician had given them a positive response after the routine checkup.
“But she [Khadija] wasn’t drinking my breast-milk. She was crying a lot. The nurse took the baby to change her and the baby kept crying. That’s when the nurse saw the cleft palate,” said Aishabi.
At the time, Aishabi and her husband Abdul Haleem knew little to nothing about cleft conditions. No one in their family had a cleft either. Some relatives suggested that picking up a knife during a solar eclipse may have been the cause. But Aishabi and Abdul Haleem shrugged it all away and focused on their precious newborn.
The initial few months were the toughest for the family. Like all babies with cleft conditions, Khadija too had trouble being fed. Aishabi recalled nights where the baby cried throughout, falling asleep in the morning out of exhaustion.
The pandemic also meant that Abdul Haleem and Aishabi couldn’t rely on their family, who were all back home in India, for support.
“I cried a lot. I needed my mother, at least,” recalled Aishabi.
Amidst all of the uncertainty at home and out in the world, Aishabi embarked upon hours of Google searches. One day while surfing on the internet about the surgical procedures to treat cleft palates, Aishabi stumbled upon Operation Smile UAE.
“I told my husband to contact them. I saw that they had done surgeries before and thought that we could also have a chance. He emailed and alhamdulillah*, they replied immediately,” explained Aishabi.
However, at the time, medical missions in the UAE had been suspended due to COVID-19. The one step they had taken towards surgery seemed to be a step backwards.
“But they always stayed in touch with me. They made us comfortable and told us that they will do [Khadija’s] surgery,” Aishabi’s voice softened as she told her story.
Aishabi took it day by day, and with her husband’s and sons’ love and support, things started falling into place slowly. After a long wait, Abdul Haleem and Aishabi found out that their daughter was eligible for surgery in the June 2021 medical mission at Healthpoint. Khadija, along with her mom and dad, travelled to Abu Dhabi.
Baby Khadija spent time with her dad in the waiting room as they waited to be called into the operating room. After this, only Aishabi would be by Khadija’s side. Because of COVID, only one parent was allowed to be with the patient after surgery.
“It was very difficult for him [Abdul Haleem]. I know he was hurting. ” Aishabi said.
Aishabi counted the seconds and minutes to meet her daughter again. As soon as she saw Khadija after the surgery, she was overwhelmed by so many emotions. When asked how she felt after seeing Khadija, Aishabi chuckled, ”I can’t explain. It was very difficult. My tears wouldn’t stop.”
Her big brothers are even more ecstatic to meet their sister.
“You know, they are calling me every half an hour. [They say:] Amma, we want to come to Khadija. They love her so much,” laughed Aishabi.
Aishabi ended with a message to other parents who may be going through a similar experience.
“Don’t lose hope. It’s not something bad. All babies are the same, just a little different.”
Alhamdulillah: an Arabic phrase that translates to “praise be to God”.
One experience for a certain volunteer, sparked the beginning of a new relationship between Operation Smile and Healthpoint.
After volunteering as an anesthesiologist at a mission in another hospital, Dr. Philipp knew he wanted to involve his own hospital- Healthpoint, a Mubadala Health Partner- with Operation Smile.
“After my approval and a successful mission at CCAD, I asked our medical management if they would be interested in providing the medical facilities for an Operation Smile mission.”
Volunteering had been a part of Dr. Philipp’s life for as long as he can remember, working as a paramedic on multiple occasions in Cologne, Germany. He also volunteered as a firefighter for 8 years in Germany.
“I experience the work as a volunteer as very satisfying. It reminds me that I chose this path of profession not for financial but humanitarian reasons. It gives me meaning to help others in need.”
Dr. Philipp’s enthusiasm and passion opened a gateway for a collaboration for Operation Smile with Healthpoint.
“After participating on an Operation Smile mission in another hospital, Phillip was inspired to advocate for other patients who required surgery and put forward a suggestion to the management of Healthpoint to partner with Operation Smile UAE.”, stated Morag, the Executive Director for Operation Smile UAE.
After gaining the initial approval, the two organizations set up for a small mission in December 2020, where 5 patients received surgery. Dr. Philipp fondly remembers a patient from this first Healthpoint mission. “There was a little girl who was 15 months old. She needed an MRI to assess her nasal polyp’s origin. It derived from the nose and not the brain and she became a suitable candidate for our hospital. I grew fond of her and was very relieved when it was decided that she could be operated on in this mission at Healthpoint.”
The success of the December 2020 mission led towards a second mission in June 2021. This mission was on a larger scale and Operation Smile was able to provide 9 surgeries. Following all the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, we were able to conduct this mission seamlessly with the support we received from Healthpoint.
Our medical and student volunteers left the busy 3 days with their hearts full. Looking back on his three medical missions, “According to my experience, the most memorable moments of the missions are when the parents see their children after the surgeries. The immediate results after a cleft lip surgery are amazing and it’s a very emotional moment for the staff and parents,” says Dr. Philipp.
This medical mission also conducted a six month follow-up with some patients who had received surgery in December 2020. “ Three of the babies returned and looked amazingly happy and healthy. The babies were walking and one little girl looked so different having had the large polyp removed and her cleft lip repaired. All of the parents were overjoyed,” recalls Morag with a big smile on her face.
The collaboration welcomed and complemented each organization’s goals and visions, with Operation Smile aiming to provide everyone with safe surgery through Healthpoint’s quality care and state of the art facilities.
Whilst working together Dr. Philipp observed both teams working together and supporting each other through each day of the mission. “What I appreciate very much is the harmonic working atmosphere during Operation Smile missions. It is founded on mutual trust and respect between all participating volunteers and medical fields.”, said Dr. Philipp.
The overall excitement and devotion in being able to help a patient after the recent June 2021 mission was visible amongst both the Operation Smile and Healthpoint teams.
“The entire team was very enthusiastic about the mission and it dominated the conversation everywhere for days. In the Operating Theatre, the question I was asked the most by our staff was, ‘when are we going to do the next mission!’”, remembered Dr. Philipp.
The mutual interests and goals for both Healthpoint and Operation Smile in bringing top quality care to their patients presents hope for future collaborations during missions, inspiring more and more volunteers to join the cause along the way.