Anna Weston has been volunteering with Operation Smile for four years and has been on five medical missions. As a speech pathologist, she reaches every patient on the first day of the medical mission for a medical evaluation and forms a connection from the beginning. She has traveled from her home in Australia to our program countries around the world to help children in need.
We recently caught up with her for a question and answer-style interview. Read on for a glimpse at what inspires Anna to continue changing lives with Operation Smile.
Question: What inspired you to volunteer with Operation Smile?
Like many health professionals, I have an innate desire to want to help others and when I saw an Operation Smile advertisement, I knew I wanted to help these children. Helping others can be enjoyable, interesting, challenging and fulfilling. Speech Pathology has always been appealing to me for these reasons, especially the area of cleft lip and cleft palate.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
I have a genuine desire to help people. I also have an education and specialty experience in the area of cleft lip and cleft palate and a sense of responsibility to apply these skills. Operation Smile provides me with the opportunity to give to others, particularly those who are in great need and who, due to enormous obstacles, cannot aid themselves. This is an experience that can travel right to your soul.
Operation Smile’s patients have a certain vulnerability. They face incredible challenges and barriers daily. Challenges include being unable to eat and drink properly, difficulty speaking properly or communicating to those who know them best. We see hundreds of patients who face these barriers on every medical mission.
During medical evaluations, you come face to face with a patient and there is no doubt a connection, whether it is spoken or not. There is a certain intensity in the room and an interaction in which the person is placing their trust into our hands. This is compounded by the presence of the family member or guardian that often sits by their side. In this moment I give it everything I possibly can in order to help this person. Nothing else matters.
Operation Smile volunteers are faced with some of the bravest souls on the planet. It is raw, and it is real. It is such a privilege to be part of this process. – Anna Weston
Operation Smile volunteers are faced with some of the bravest souls on the planet. It is raw, and it is real. It is such a privilege to be part of this process. And when you see the patients after their surgery, this is truly life changing for them, on many many levels. Absolutely life changing. The Operation Smile process changes all of our lives.
Q: Is there a particular moment or patient from a medical mission that will stay with you forever?
My first medical mission was in Kashgar, China. It was well over 100 degrees, and there were close to 300 patients who arrived for medical evaluations. Needless to say, it was hectic.
Half-way through medical evaluations, the door opened, and in came a young Uighur mother, her tiny young baby, and her own mother. Both women looked terrified. They had traveled 12 hours on a bus to make it to the medical mission. Their little baby boy was severely malnourished and he had a large bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate. In this particular case, because of the severity of his cleft palate, the baby could not breastfeed. If this baby did not get fed, he may not have had much longer to live.
I sat with the family and worked with them several times over that day on techniques to help the baby feed. We were able to get the baby to start feeding using a small cup designed for babies with a cleft palate. This truly was a sign of hope. Over the following week we spoke with the family many times each day, and they were so happy to tell us that the baby was progressing really well. He had the best chance of being a surgery candidate once he grew strong enough, and he would be ready and waiting at the next Operation Smile mission.
The other thing that really brings joy to me, is every time I get to see a patient after their surgery, and work with them to help them say their name properly. The first time in their life that they could say their own name is truly remarkable. This is really fun and usually results in an outburst of emotion from the family members that are there with the patient.
Q: From your perspective, describe the three biggest challenges or barriers to care patients face in places where you have worked.
First off, the demand is just too great and there are often not enough practitioners. In some developing countries, there may be only one or two Speech Pathologist for the entire country of millions of people. Specific to cleft palate patients, many of them need much time and therapy. A child with a repaired cleft palate may need years of therapy. Even in Australia, there are enormous waiting lists.
Also, poverty is a huge factor. So many of our patients have little or no access to health care and life’s most basic essentials such as clean water, food, and a roof over their head. Poverty also equals poor nutrition, which such a critical factor in the area of cleft lip and palate.
Q: How has volunteering with Operation Smile impacted you professionally and personally?
Professionally, Operation Smile has widened my lens. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work with other health professionals from around the globe and learn new techniques that I would have never known if I didn’t work alongside someone from halfway around the world. There is always so much to learn and the learning never stops. You see health related issues that you may not see in your own country. There are so many different approaches, including modern medicine and traditional.
It is amazing to meet people so dedicated to helping others and witnessing the incredible work they have done. It has also been great to bring home my newly learned kills and share them with people that are interested.
Personally, it is hard to describe what an amazing experience it is to attend a medical mission mission. It isn’t a walk in the park, or some fun holiday work adventure! But the hard work is 100 percent worthwhile. Sometimes it may involve the full spectrum of emotion if you can allow it. I think it is incredibly special and an incredible privilege to treat these children around the world, to build their trust in you and help change their lives.
There have been moments where I have no doubt witnessed the true human experience. All other layers are stripped back, and there you are immersed in some of the most profound moments. It is a total privilege, and again, I stand by the fact that we get just as much from the medical missions as the patients do.