Khadija’s story

Patient Khadija with a student volunteer Credit: Operation Smile UAE

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”.

Healthpoint & Operation Smile UAE

Dr. Phillip with a patient at Healthpoint

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.

A patient has their temperature taken before surgery

Dr. Eeva’s Story

May 18, 2019 – Dr. Eeva-Liisa examines a patient during the Operation Smile UAE
© Operation Smile UAE / Brian Kerrigan

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.

June 20, 2019 — Abu Dhabi — Eeva-Liisa Langille with a patient. Image Courtesy © Operation Smile UAE / Brian Kerrigan

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.”

Help us to continue keeping our promise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.