My mission was to get to know Austin Smiles and the people they serve right on the front lines. I knew that in order to instill passion in others to support this organization, I would have to immerse myself as a first-hand witness to their work and their passion.
Austin Smiles, The Austin Plastic Surgery Foundation, is a nonprofit organization providing reconstructive plastic surgery, primarily cleft lip and palate repairs, to the children of Central Texas and in various countries in Latin America. This summer marked their 25th year to travel to Latin America as part of several medical missions done yearly.
From June 10-16, I traveled with Austin Smiles for their seven day trip to San Salvador, El Salvador, with doctors, nurses and volunteers, bringing their expertise, medical supplies, ready to transform the lives of children and adults suffering from cleft lips and palate. Additional support for the mission trip came from the Rotary Club of San Salvador. They donated lunch each day for the 37 volunteers, as well as hosting a closing ceremony, complete with delicious Salvadorian food, marimba band, and where each volunteer received hospital scrubs with the Rotary emblem and certificates of appreciation.
One of the most touching things I saw first hand, was how much trust the parents had in the doctors, nurses and staff of Austin Smiles. Some parents had walked for days to reach San Salvador from countries as far away as Honduras and Nicaragua. They stood in long lines, ready to hand their children over to medical personal, and hope. I almost couldn’t get off the bus, trying to hold back the tears that suddenly washed over me when I saw how many were standing in line on the first day when we arrived at 6:00 a.m.
The facility for the surgeries was the Hospital Militar De El Salvador and there was a constant military presence. Using three hospital rooms, the Austin Smiles team performs 52 surgeries in 4 days taking anywhere from 1 to 4 hours for each surgery. Families of mothers and fathers with their children sit in long hallway lines waiting their turn, hour after hour.
One of the most memorable moments for me was watching a mother hand over her child to the doctors saying to them, “This is my last child.” She had lost another child to a surgery by another organization a few years ago.
The overall process for cleft lip or palate surgery was a 24-hour turn around. In the Triage area, patients were examined and asked their medical history before being approved for surgery. Every morning, I went to work using two hand puppets to play with children who were waiting, just to see if could bring a little laughter and a smile to their face.
Once the surgeries began for the day, I would move to the post-anesthesia care unit, often abbreviated to PACU, or also known as the Recovery room. The nurses always seemed to appreciate an extra pair of hands. I would hold the oxygen tube, chart what the nurses told me to write, comfort and hold a child who was crying and just wanted his mother, or transporting the patient to the post-op hospital room. But some of my favorite times were to help with the transition as they came out of anesthesia, where each patient got a special gift like a stuffed animal or baseball cap.
Since 1987, Austin Smiles has completed over 4,500 corrective surgeries to children and those needing assistance. Serving as their Auctioneer and auction consultant for the 3rd year in a row, I’m looking forward to helping them exceed their goals for the future at the Wish Upon a Smile gala, on September 28th at Umlauf Sculpture Gardens. One of the best pieces of advice I was given before the trip was to go with an open heart. This year, I hope that by sharing my own journey from the heart, this will inspire even more to give to Austin Smiles.
Photos courtesy of Kris Kennedy/Austin Smiles.
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