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From Cleft Lip to Kaifeng, Part One

The day has come.

CME2016 holding hands

Countless appointments, days of preparation, and hours without food or water. Your surgery day has arrived.

After a night of restless sleep, your caretaker escorts you to the surgery center. Restaurants call your name as you pass, as your stomach begs for nourishment. You arrive at the hospital and unbuckle your seatbelt without thinking. Your caretaker guides you to the check-in desk, and the receptionist addresses you. White noise. Your cataleptic response satisfies them, and you sit, visualizing the operating room. Waiting. You are content, focused, and composed.

Your name is called, and you’re asked to change into a hospital gown that never quite fits right. The nurses greet you. White noise. You sit. Numb. Fixated. Tranquil.  IV’s are placed, and an anesthesiologist consults you. “You’re in good hands.” “Any questions about what we’re doing today?” “You’ll do great.” Your surgeon appears. “How are you feeling?” (How are you feeling?! You’re the one that’ll be awake. Trust.)

Someone wheels you into the operating room. Blinding lights, beeps, instruments, and masks. You lay down; your caretaker grasps your hand, never to let go. Beep. Masks, limbs, and tubes orbit you. Beep. A gas mask engulfs your face. Beep. Trust. “This will make you feel a little sleepy now.” “Breathe nice and easy now.” “Count to 100 for me.” 1, 2, 3. Limbs turn numb. Beep. 4, 5, 6. The body abandons the mind. Beep. 7, 8, 9. Trust. Beep. 10, 11, 12. White. 13, 14, 15. Black.

CME2016 another surgery begins 4.19.16

Since my birth, I’ve gone through over twenty procedures. My parents have literally lost count. I was born with a severe cleft lip and palate and am reminded of it every single, day. I’ve met with dozens of doctors, and lose track of what procedures I’ve had done, when, with whom, and where.

My surgeon, Dr. Chris Tolan, has always stood out. Just like me, Dr. Tolan was born with cleft lip. He knows, and I have never struggled to trust him.

Our routine includes annual visits.  Dr. Tolan has traveled the world contributing to a number of mission trips. During a routine annual visit, curiosity overtook me. I inquired about getting involved. Knowing how fortunate I am to have access to world-class healthcare, I had, and still have, a deep desire to give back.

CME2016 surgeonsDr. Liu and Dr. Tolan

Via Love Without Boundaries, I was able to raise enough funds to join the team. Having never left the country before, I got caught up in a whirlwind of preparation and was oblivious to the emotions that would soon follow. On April 15th, 2016, I boarded a plane to China.

Upon arriving in Beijing, I noticed contrasts that were overwhelming. Cars driving on the shoulder, smog, toilets without seats…everything was so new to me. I was dazed and desperate for something familiar. I miraculously checked into the hotel and somehow managed to change some dollars into yuan. The rest of the team arrived shortly thereafter, and I was relieved to hear English. We spent the night in Beijing; dinner and a quick exploration of the surrounding markets. Two things consumed my thoughts: the patients I would meet the next day, and the procedures they were about to experience.

The morning after, via bus, bullet train, and bus again, we arrived at our hotel in Kaifeng. We frantically checked in and quickly left for the hospital. Our bus driver astutely navigated the rush-hour traffic, and we arrived. I was stunned. Stunned, as in, tripping on my jaw. I truly did not know what to expect, but the split pants on all of the children was a complete revelation and just one of the many cultural differences that amazed me.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor (and sanitized it, Mom), we began patient rounds. I shadowed the medical staff throughout, anxious to meet the children. I quickly realized that there were two languages that I suddenly had to grasp: Chinese and Medical. I was again overwhelmed.

Then I met Joy.

When I was introduced to her, she was understandably cautious. I had blonde hair, blue eyes, and spoke English:  an alien in her eyes. I brought Joy and her nanny in close and shared a photo of me as a child.

The nanny found comfort as I tried to explain my story. Through a series of points, gestures, and below-average Chinese, she eventually understood that, like Joy, I too was born with a cleft lip and palate. All this time, Joy was watching — interested, but still wary. She could see that I knew. Not twenty minutes later, Joy and I were inseparable. We colored, went for walks, and blew enough balloons for month of birthday parties.

I didn’t need to know Chinese to connect with Joy. No matter the background, ethnicity, or country of origin, kids are kids.

After meeting a number of additional patients and caretakers, I ventured up to the operating floor. As I approached the locked doors, I noticed a number caretakers anxiously awaiting their child’s status. My mind immediately projected my mother and father into the room and thought about the emotions they were undoubtedly experiencing. I sat by each one and shared pictures of me as a child, and my family.

They were amazed at my “baba,” “mama,” and that I had three “mei meis” (younger sisters). I explained that the same surgeon who helped me was now helping their child. Relief washed over their faces, and from that moment on I shared my story with as many caretakers as I could. It was the least I could do. Not to mention, I’ve never received hugs so genuine.

As I entered the operating floor, I found myself content, focused, and composed. I had been here before.

(Part Two of Nick’s blog about his experiences during our 2016 Cleft Medical Exchange can be found here.)

~Nick Donovan is a Cleft Care Assistant Coordinator for Love Without Boundaries

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