Operation Smile spreads smiles through Chiriqui, Panama in April 2010!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 9 & 10

Yesterday was a wonderful last day in Panama. I spent the morning at the Airport in David, and then flew to Panama City in the President's plane. Once in Panama city, Pam and Shannon and I dropped off our bags in the hotel room and then met up with Pam's husband for lunch. Pam is staying in Panama for another week with her husband so he met us in Panama city. After lunch, we got a wonderful tour of Panama City from Xenia. We went to this incredible artist market where I saw and bought many native pieces of art and clothing. We saw much of the city, including rainforest and the Panama Canal! We then went to the mall and did a little shopping. Xenia was incredibly kind and had us for dinner at her house. It was delicious and a wonderful final meal.

This morning I flew home. I'm exhausted after over 12 hours of travel, but thrilled with all the wonderful memories from Panama.
I couldn't have asked for a better mission, and I will treasure the past 10 days for the rest of my life. I love both my mission partner and mission sponsor with all my heart, and think we were an amazing trio. I am excited to see everyone at home, but to be honest, I wish I was still in Panama. I have been thinking about the children nonstop and think that I will for a very long time. As much as OP Smile helped them, these kids really taught me a lot too. I wish I could see them all in 10 years and witness how their lives have changed. I can't believe my mission is already over, and I would do the whole thing over again tomorrow if I could.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 8

It was really difficult to say goodbye to everyone at the shelter today. We were only there for about four hours this morning, because this afternoon we went to the Altieri's beach house again, for the final party.

First thing I gave Ricardo's mother the suitcase. She was so grateful for it and even tried to pay me for it. She and Ricardo's grandmother stuffed it completely and yet still they have so much stuff. I have no idea how they are going to get home. Yamilka, Ricardo's sister, wrote me a beautiful letter today and drew me some beautiful pictures. I learned that Ricardo's little sister is named Rosalin. The whole family is incredibly sweet and you can tell how much the mother does for her children. I spent a descent amount of time sitting with them on their cots.

Other than that we just played with the kids as always. Many of our friends came back to the shelter from the hospital which was nice. I also went around and handed out the rest of my toothbrushes. People were really excited to get them and many took one for each child they had back at home.

Saying goodbye to everyone was absolutely heartbreaking. We are so used to saying "Hasta Manana", so telling everyone that this is it, we won't be back later was really difficult. I had an especially hard time leaving Ricardo's family, of course. I gave them all multiple hugs, and I was surprised by how expressive Yamilka was because she is so shy. Some of the kids came outside to wave goodbye which made it that much harder because we were already sobbing and they came up to the bus and everything. I will miss them all so much, and as cliche as it sounds, I really have a place for them in my heart.

We then headed to the Altieri's beach house for dinner. It was so much fun! The family is so nice to have us there again, and they treat us so well. We played Ping-Pong outside on the deck and drank coco water and ate delicious food. After dinner I decided that I really should go into the ocean, so I ran in dressed, since I didn't bring a bathing-suit this time. The water is so warm and it was so refreshing, even though I had to be in my wet clothes for the rest of the night. We then hung out on the beach for a while. Chantal, Isabella, and Gabi taught us a Panamanian dance on the beach and we had a blast. On the way home we raced across the beach in the back of a pickup truck and it was lightly raining. It was so nice to speed along the water with the wind blowing. The whole night was a really nice way to end the week.

Now we are back at the hotel packing because tomorrow we leave for Panama City at 5:30 AM. We will spend the day and night there, and then Sunday I head home. I really never want to leave, Panama is so wonderful!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Day 7

Today was a really long day and I can tell the I'm getting a little run down.

First thing in the morning I ran to the hospital really quickly to visit Ricardo and give him a t-shirt and a bubble maker from Pam that he loves. He was happy to see me, but clearly tired and uncomfortable. I also saw Brenda, who was doing really well. We played with giant pipe-cleaners and she laughed and laughed.

Then I went to the shelter and played with the kids. The shelter is really almost empty now, but we still have kids to entertain.
Some of the older boys finally engaged with us and we played a really long game of the card game War. You can definitely tell that they are more self conscious about their faces than the younger kids. We have a lot of fun though. This one boy (maybe my age or older) played songs for me on his phone and asked me to translate the English to Spanish. It was difficult, but I found that it was easier than I thought to get the point across. The boys also love kicking around a soccer ball, and two of them are amazing at juggling.

Ricardo came back to the shelter in the early afternoon and I learned a lot more about him. It turns out the one of the older quieter girls is his sister. I had always liked her, but never knew they were related. Her name is Yamilka and she is absolutely gorgeous. The two of them, and their baby sister all had surgery on their feet. They have three more brothers and sister back home too. I tried to get their address so I can write to them but they don't really have an address. The way they described where their house is: "My house is in the Valle de Anton. It has many trees and flowers". I thought this was ridiculous at first, but it turns out, most of the patients describe their address like that. I'm still going to try to see if I can get a letter to them. I let Ricardo sit and take pictures with my camera more today, especially since he can't run around. He took some great pictures of his feet all wrapped up. I also had to help out his mom by giving him a piggy back ride to the bathroom. I don't think she was strong enough to carry him, and she was struggling a lot, so I piggy backed him over to the boys room and then she brought him back out and I piggy backed him back to his bed. On the way back he decided it would be funny to pretend he was falling and lean back. I was so worried that he'd hurt is feet that I started screaming and trying to balance him and he started laughing. Everyone was staring and he thought it was hilarious. I sat with their family a lot today and got to talk with his mother. It turns out she was really worried about carrying all of their belongings home, since they live 4.5 hours away and now all of her children have bandaged feet, and one of them is only 2 years old anyway. She asked me if I had a big suitcase and I realized that I have an huge empty one in my hotel room. I'm brining it to her tomorrow so that she can carry everything more easily. She asked me if there is any was she can return it to me, but there is no way she can afford to ship it to the US, or be able to get to a post office.

Also while we were sitting outside today I saw a man that looked confused so I asked him if he needed help. He walked over to me and just handed me his baby girl. I was so confused, but then realized that they had to eat lunch and she wasn't allowed to eat because of her surgery so they didn't want her to watch. She was adorable and thought it was hilarious when I made my duck puppet eat her hand and legs.

We went to the hospital around six and got to see many of our friends. Arnando was very happy to see us and led us to this corner where there are toys. He dumped everything out and refused to let us clean up. he was quite lively for right after his surgery and was running around with his lip all bandaged up.

We got to talk to the awesome bus driver who drives us around all the time. Isa, Chantal and Gabi nicknamed him "Profi" (Porfilio is his real name). He is such a nice person. He was very proud to tell us about his fire extinguisher business and I think really enjoyed hearing us try to speak Spanish.

Tomorrow the surgeons finish up about 10 cleft lips and then we go to the beach again. I can't believe everything is almost over. I am going to be really sad to come home. I know it's going to be really difficult to adjust back to everyday life, and I'm going to miss Panama so much!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 6

I can't believe that Wednesday is already over. We didn't end up going to the hospital today, which I was originally sad about, but we actually have more to do at the shelter. I think today I was the most tired I've been, but still I had a blast. The shelter has really started to empty out, but we also receive the patients that have already had surgery because they need to wait in the shelter for a while in order for the doctors to be able to check up on them.

The children really do love to see us arrive everyday. Today we arrived especially early and everyone was still eating breakfast and getting ready for the day. As we got out of the bus, Brenda was prancing around in her towel looking clean as a duck. She saw us and smiled really quickly, but then marched inside, toothbrush in hand, pigtails bouncing, clearly on a mission. It was one of the most adorable things I have ever seen. And now Pam and I are sitting here in the hotel room talking about how we don't have any way to really give it justice. When she was all dressed and ready to play, I gave her a giant pink pipe-cleaner. She didn't know what to do with it at first, but then I waved it around and made her try to catch it and she was thrilled. She headed off to the hospital today to get her palate fixed. I can't wait to see her tomorrow!

Another good part of my day was forming a really good relationship with Arnando, a tiny little pistol. He is about two years old, a little whiny, but mostly ADORABLE. He loves being photographed, and would just sit on my lap and let me take pictures of him. He also loved sticking stickers all over his arms and then peeling them off one by one and yelping a little bit each time. He followed me around all day and wanted to be a part of everything. Everyday these women bring what I think is called "dudo", which is frozen fruit juice with sugar in plastic cups. They stand outside and sell them for 25 cents each. They are so refreshing. I bought Arnando one and after it started to melt, he tipped it all the way back to get the juice and spilled it all over himself.

Ricardo went off to surgery today too. I wasn't sure if we was excited or not, but it turns out I really think he was. He ran up to me and said "I'm going now!" and I said "That's great! How exciting!" and he gave me a big hug. I really want to go see him at the hospital tomorrow.

Many families have started to leave for home. Most of them have had surgery, but there are some that have to be sent home without. It's usually because of medical issues discovered later, but it's really sad to see them have to leave and not be "fixed". It's really sad to see everyone leave though, because even though it's only been a few days, I have gotten to know a lot of them really well.

Jose David Cabo went home today and I was especially sad to see him go. He was very uncomfortable for a lot of the day because of his palate, and also a little out of it because of medications. I gave him the tiny t-shirt that I bought him. You can tell just how much his dad loves him by the way he looks at him and takes care of him. I love thinking about what he's going to be when he's grown up since I know he know has many more opportunities than if he didn't have his surgery.

Presentations have been going well and the kids got into the dental one a lot and all wanted to try brushing the giant teeth. We have given away a lot of toothbrushes and my suitcase is almost empty!

There is this one dad who especially takes care of his daughter. She's an older girl, so the surgery was most likely very tough on her because the older you get, the more painful the surgery is. Her father just sits with her all day nourishing her with juice out of a dropper. They barely talk, but you can tell how much he loves her.

Tomorrow is the 2nd to last day of surgery.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 5

All the days have been starting off the same. We wake up at 5:45 and go to breakfast with the team, then straight to the hospital or shelter. Breakfast is really good, but we're usually a little grumpy.

Today was the most incredible day yet, and definitely the most emotional. We went to the hospital! We got to see all the children recovering from surgeries from yesterday. We saw the first child to receive a surgery. She was only 4 months old and she was beautiful. Her mother was sitting by her bed beaming. I got all choked up.

Then we watched the babies head off to surgery. One of the nurses stood blowing bubbles for them until they were ready to go. It was hard to see the mothers be all worried about their children, but we assured them that everything would be okay. One mother in particular wanted to know how her baby boy would be put to sleep. We didn't really know how to tell her in Spanish, but we did our best and she understood, especially after our hugs, that everything would be okay. The whole time I watched as the young father rocked his son back and forth waiting for surgery. I was thrilled to get to watch his surgery.

It was the most incredible experience. Dr. Joseph let me watch right up close as he repaired a cleft palate. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He explained everything as he went along, and told me I could ask any questions I wanted. I just stood and watched the whole thing from start to finish. I was pleasantly surprised that I could watch without feeling sick. The anesthesiologist was also incredible, explaining what he had to do, and let me watch as he woke up Jose David Cabo, the beautiful tiny two year old boy. It was heart-wrenching to watch him wake up, he was so uncomfortable. I decided I couldn't let him go then, so I followed him to recovery. I got to hold him and soothe him in order to calm him down. I can't even begin to describe what that was like. Finally he rested on my chest and stopped crying. I then got to hand him over to his dad who was so incredibly happy to see him. I plan to go visit him in the hospital tomorrow morning and give him a baby Operation Smile shirt which I bought him today.

Then we headed to the shelter for the afternoon. The kids were so happy to see us again, and have become more and more comfortable around us. We came in wearing bunny ears and the kids laughed and laughed. We played for hours with giant blow up beach balls, scratch art, pipe cleaners, crayons, and more. We had the kids all trace their hands on this giant piece of paper and sign it.

I found out more about Ricardo, the boy who loves my camera. First of all, it's incredible what an eye he has for photography. I can't believe how beautiful the pictures he takes are, and he's only 11. I make him laugh a lot by making ridiculous faces and letting him take pictures of them. Today when I made a particularly ridiculous face he was like "Don't make THAT face again", making sure I knew how ridiculous it made me look. I finally got to asking him why he was here, and it turns out he is getting surgery on his feet. He clearly didn't want to talk about it, but I plan on finding out when his surgery is and going to the hospital to be there when he goes in and comes out of surgery, because most likely I can't watch.

Tonight we went to dinner at Altieri's house (one only a few minutes away). The food and the company was great. Dr. Joseph is going to Washington DC tomorrow for a conference, so tomorrow is the last day I get to see him. He told us at dinner that he is going to miss us very much, and I'm going to miss him too, he has been a wonderful teacher. Everyone is so nice, and I'm so happy to be here!

Shannon and Pam and I goof around all the time and have such fun together. It's so much fun

Tomorrow we will go to the hospital to see Jose and say goodbye to Dr. Joseph. Then we will head to the shelter again.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 4

Today was another wonderful day. We spent the whole day at the shelter again. We arrived at the shelter at 7:45 and at about 10 we were wondering how we were going to last the day. I was worried that we would run out of things to do with the kids, but we never did! We stayed until 7 at night, almost 12 hours! As soon as we arrived the kids came running because they knew we had toys. As the day went on, we made more and more friends and the Spanish keeps getting easier. Today we brought out the mardi gras beads and everyone wanted one.

One of the highlights of my day was meeting this boy, Ricardo, who LOVED my camera. I showed him how to use it and he went around taking tons of pictures of everyone. Every once and a while, he'd bring it back to me and show me all the ones he'd taken. And he asked me to go through all the pictures on my camera from the past couple of days and tell him where each one was and who was in it. He has taken pictures of his feet all over the place. It took me a while to figure out why, he has six toes. He loved taking pictures of this girl with feet like his too.

I also had a blast with this girl named Brenda. She is this adorable little girl who always wears two pig tails on top of her head. She didn't talk until the last hour of the day, and then it was really hard to understand her because she has a cleft palate. That has made things really hard in general. It is impossible to understand most of the children with cleft palates. She just sat down next to me and ripped of tiny pieces of clay which she handed to me one by one as gifts. She has the most beautiful smile. I held the clay up to my face and then slowly ripped a whole in it just big enough for my eye. As soon as she saw it she'd laugh and laugh! There was this little girl who would color in this coloring book filled with ducks. Then she'd proudly show me the pages and I'd quack at them. She couldn't get enough of it.

When we left for the night all the kids ran up and gave us hugs.

After dinner we went to the supermarket which was an adventure and sat outside by this colorful fountain drinking sodas. I have never had so much soda in my life as I have had these past few days, but right now, there is nothing more refreshing than a chilled Coke.

The surgeons did 46 surgeries today. How amazing!
Tomorrow we go to the hospital!!!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 3

Today was an amazing day. We woke up thinking we were going to the shelter for a while, but it turns out we were going to the beach for most of the day to start off surgery week! First though, we ate breakfast at the hotel where most of the surgeons are staying. I really liked this kind of fried dough called sopapilla. Then Shannon, Pam and I walked around the town. We saw the local church just as a mass was getting out so we got to look inside. It was very modern which was unexpected. We also went into a little gift shop which was an interesting combination of a drug store, school supply store, party supply store and gift shop. But get this, it was called a bookstore...

Next we were headed to Eugene Altieri's beach house which was an hour way. We drove through some pretty poor parts of David which was a bit eye opening. I also just saw a horse tied up on the side of the road. And there are lots of palm trees.

In order to get the house, we needed to drive along the beach. We sat in the back of a pick up truck and speed along the sand! It was wonderful! The house was incredible and they were so nice to have us. Mr. Altieri welcomed us saying "This is your house! It's very informal, do anything you like." We walked along the beach and then spent hours in the pool. The water here is so warm! It was so relaxing, I felt like there wasn't a worry in the world!
In the pool we talked a lot with Joseph, a plastic surgeon who spoke English very well, which was nice. He introduced us to coconut water! They cut a hole in the top of a little coconut and stick in a straw. It's very refreshing. Lunch was delicious and for dessert I had coconut candies and a little candy that tastes like "dolce de leche".

On the car ride home I learned a lot about Operation Smile Panama from Roberto, a plastic surgeon. Panama was the first country to be self sufficient with OP Smile surgeries! He talked about what an impact cleft lips and palates have on the children, especially the ones from Indian descent. They all think it's a curse. The parents won't come to seek out help because they are too embarrassed, the doctors need to go and find the children, sometimes up in the mountains!

Now we're back at the hotel, definitely ready for some rest! Tomorrow is the first day of surgery, but we're going to be back at the shelter giving presentations and playing with the children. I can't wait to see them again!