Shortly after my retirement, I was sitting at my desk looking at airline tickets for a trip to Spain. The phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, Marilyn. She is an operating room nurse who, for years, has been participating in medical missions all over the world. This time the team with which she was working, Ecuadent, was going to Ecuador and, although the organization already had a very competent interpreter, they needed another one to assist doctors, anesthesiologists and nurses to communicate with patients and their families. She invited me to apply as a volunteer, like everyone else, and, if accepted, accompany the team. Without thinking much about it, I immediately collected my credentials and sent them. I also forgot the trip to Spain and started, instead, to look for airline tickets to Guayaquil. I was excited at the possibility of this new experience and adventure in a country I had never visited. Much to my pleasure, I was asked to join the team.
That phone call arrived eight years ago. I have been involved in these missions since then. Given my age and my means, I cannot think of anything I could do right now to help human beings that is quite as beneficial for the patients and as rewarding for all as my involvement in this enterprise.
The advantage to my continued participation in these missions is that many of our patients come back. They come back for the team to revise scars, or because they had more than one problem that needs to be fixed by different surgical interventions. Sometimes they even come back just so we will see how well they are doing, how good looking they are with repaired cleft lips, or how well they speak and eat with closed palates.
These subsequent visits enable us to become close to the patients and to their families, learn their stories and share the joy of their physical improvement:
The first time I accompanied this team, we worked in a small hospital in Salinas. The youngest patient we had that year was a six-month-old baby girl with a cleft lip. Damaris and her mother had traveled by bus all the way from Esmeraldas, an eight-hour bus ride, to access the medical team in the hopes that we could do something to help the baby. She was operated on by one of our very capable plastic surgeons and, after a couple of days, she and her mother returned home.
Several years later, we set up shop in the city of Esmeraldas. The first day there, I saw a face that looked familiar to me. I approached the lady who was holding a beautiful and rather active three-year old on her lap. “Do I know you?” I asked her and she responded affirmatively. It was Damaris’ mother with the child we had assisted in Salinas. I went to look for the surgeon who had operated on her and both of us took pictures of the lovely and lively child who, but for a tiny white line down one side of her upper lip, had the perfect mouth she should have had at birth.
In 2015, we were in El Puyo, a small city in the Amazonian region of Ecuador. The team operated on a young girl who had several congenital oral defects. Diana and her father have been to see us every year since then. Diana, who is now 19 years old, has endured five surgeries and she looks and speaks better each time we see her. Fortunately for her, she might not have to come back to undergo interventions. But what is significant is that she is happier, more confident and prettier than she has ever been. Her father, who accompanies her on all these visits, is a calm, doting father who would do anything to help his daughter improve in every possible way and who lavishes sincere gratitude on all of us.
This year we saw Carlos again. He is 17 years old and his mother, who brought him to us several years ago, had died. He was accompanied by his sisters who were just as concerned about his well being as his mother had been. He still had the stuffed animal Ecuadent had given him the first time the team treated him. He brought it so we could see that he had kept it lovingly. This time he needed a nose scar revised. He was with us two days and talked at length about his experiences after the operation. He was excited about his girlfriend and he credited Ecuadent for the success of their relationship. Not only that, he wants to join the Ecuadorian Navy and assist Ecuadent, as much as possible, in subsequent medical missions.
Finally, there is Oriana. Her parents brought her to the Hospital in Esmeraldas when she was just three months old. She was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate. We have seen her every year since that first time in 2014. The team has operated on her four times and she looks better, healthier and more grown up each time we see her. One of the recovery nurses, Christine, who took care of Oriana after her first surgery, was her godmother when she was baptized in one of the hospital rooms. We all hope to see Oriana again although we all also hope she will not need any more surgical interventions.
These are some of the stories about the patients who keep us all coming back. Ecuadent does make a difference, a very important difference, in the lives of many individuals. Being profoundly aware of how significant our contributions are encourages us to help, to give, to share, to console and cuddle these children.