Brooke Walker recently traveled with Operation Smile to Kenya, Africa.
NAKURU, Kenya — It’s happening in communities around the world. Children are being changed, their lives affected forever — all through the gift of a simple smile.
The recipients of that gift come from miles away. Some have traveled hours, others days — all have made great sacrifices just to be here. They line up and wait patiently for their turn to see the American doctors.
There are mothers, with babies strapped to their bodies. The small children peek out with curious, searching, nearly black eyes. There are fathers, more reserved by nature, who humbly nod hello as others rush past. Anxious stares jump out from their otherwise expressionless eyes.
But on this day, hope also lines their tired faces. That hope rests with one group, which has also traveled far distances to help — a group known as Operation Smile.
This particular Operation Smile team includes several Utah volunteers. Among them is Bountiful plastic surgeon Dan Sellers. Sellers helped form the Utah chapter of the nonprofit group nearly 25 years ago, and served as medical director of this Nakuru, Kenya mission.
“Utah is such a giving state,” he said. “The mission of Operation Smile connects with Utah in a very real, and very special way.”
He is part of a team of more than 40 American volunteers who worked closely with a Kenya medical team to repair cleft lips and cleft palates — procedures considered simple, even routine, in the United States. But in Kenya, those simple procedures can be life changing, even life-saving.
“It’s more than just a cosmetic fix,” Sellers said. “Some of the babies cannot eat because of their deformities. These children are made fun of, even shunned from society for something we can repair in only 45 minutes.”
Home base for this volunteer team is the Rift Valley General Hospital in Nakuru. The first two days are screening days. The team is set up in a very small, very cramped seven-room building. Potential patients are examined by nurses, by surgeons and by a pediatrician to determine if they are strong enough to withstand the strain of surgery.
Some are turned away — a sad and tearful exchange between a compassionate doctor and a pleading parent. But most leave already smiling at their chance to receive a new smile, and a new life.
After a few hours of screening, the process is perfected and flows like honey. Presurgery pictures of the children are taken. Vitals are recorded. Approved patients are given a date and a time, later in the week, when their surgeries will take place.
“We have people who are transporting children, who are finding medications for us, filling out paperwork, making sure pictures get taken,” said Sellers. “Everyone has a job, and there are so many pieces to the puzzle.”
For the volunteers, many parents themselves, the assignment is just as personal as it is professional.
“If that was my child, I would want people like Operation Smile to come in and do that for me,” said volunteer nurse Nancy Kraus.
After two extensive days of screening, nearly 120 individuals are cleared for surgery, most of them children. Looking into the eyes of the children and their parents, it’s easy to see the impact this opportunity will have.
Like 18-month-old Onesmus. His mother is a farmer, his father a shopkeeper. They want their baby to “grow up smart.”
Or 20-year-old Edequam, who traveled for days, by foot, from the far borders of Sudan. Kicked out of school for his facial deformity, Edequam wants a chance to learn and to be accepted.
But it was 14-year-old Soleme Kuto who caught the ears and hearts of many of the volunteers.
A beautiful girl who aspires to someday be a pilot, Soleme has the voice of an African angel. Her older sister, who accompanied her on the four-hour bus ride from Nairobi, said Soleme is often hesitant to sing in public settings, like church, because it draws attention to her deformed lip. Soleme said there was only one reason she wanted doctors to fix her face.
“I want to sing praises to my Lord,” she said softly, ducking her head as she forced back a subtle smile.
Sellers declared her a perfect surgery candidate.
“It’s an amazing thing that in such a short time, you can take something like this that has been a problem for 14 years — and essentially make that person whole again,” he said.
Just three days later, Soleme finds herself in the careful care of volunteers, including Utah nurse Kit Smith.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to be part of something like this,” Smith said. “It’s life changing for them, and life changing for us.”
Soleme’s mother and sister wait anxiously outside of the operating room, putting their trust in the delicate hands of strangers. After 35 minutes, the procedure is done.
Soleme’s mother is brought into the recovery room to see her daughter for the very first time. A nurse greets her at the door, but she peered eagerly around the volunteer’s shoulder for a look. When her eyes finally rest on her daughter’s near-perfect new mouth, she immediately bowed her head and began to pray.
“Oh thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus!” she exclaimed though soft sobs as the nurse gently rubbed her back, in a gesture of comfort.
A translator would later define her rapid Swahili prayer as that mother’s opportunity to bless the doctors and nurses who had given her baby girl something she never could — a new smile.
“These missions are from the heart, they are not from your head,” Sellers said. “They wrench at your heart. Once you’ve gone on a mission, it’s hard not to go back. Because even though you might see 20 children, or 30 children get fixed — you know there are hundreds of children left to help.”
If you could like to donate or help Operation Smile, please call 801-582-0212 or visit www.operationsmile.org and search for the ‘Utah Chapter.’