LWB Community Blog

From Cleft Lip to Kaifeng, Part Two

Yesterday, LWB volunteer Nick Donovan shared his thoughts in a blog about why he decided to join our Cleft Medical Exchange and his initial impressions. Here is part two of his blog in which Nick witnesses his first cleft surgery:

As I entered the operating floor, I found myself content, focused, and composed. I had been here before. Knowing the patient’s perspective, I was anxious to see how the medical team approached days like this:  eight surgeries were on the schedule. I quickly changed into scrubs and threw on a surgical cap. I grabbed my face mask, and a mirror caught the corner of my eye. It took me three minutes to tie the mask on as I lost myself in the reflection. I was out of my comfort zone; I was now one of the masks.

I opened the OR door to blinding lights, beeps, instruments, and masks. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses orbited the vacant table. I stood back, took a deep breath, and absorbed. As the patient entered the room, our eyes met. Time stood still. We knew.

Restless, she reached for anyone, anything, desperate for aid. Trust. Dr. Derechin, the anesthesiologist, quickly settled her onto the operating table and injected a number of sedations into her IV. Organized chaos surrounded her followed by silence, broken only by beeps. The anesthetics quickly sedated her, and I felt her body go limp. Black.

CME2016 Sierra surgery 4.22.16

Throughout the preparation, the medical staff was content, focused, and composed. Nurses, staff, volunteers, and translators encircled the patient. The ceiling light flashed on, and Dr. Tolan took center stage. With precision, he swiftly marked each incision point, visualizing the distinct layers and dozens of stitches. Once the blueprint was complete, he stood and left the room to sterilize. The nurses prepped the instruments and focused the lights, like stagehands setting the scene. Everyone had a role. The surgery was about to begin.

The first incision broke the skin, and I had to remind myself to breathe. Trust.

What’s under human flesh is no secret, but I’ll never forget seeing it intentionally broken with such care. I admired Dr. Tolan’s innate concentration and meticulousness. Each layer of skin was precisely cut, sculpted and stitched back together: a living, layered puzzle.

After over an hour at work, one moment stood out. In slow-motion, a precise stitch grabbed each side of the split cleft lip. With one swift motion, the segments came together. The cleft closed. I nearly fainted with relief.

Dr. Tolan continued to perfect his piece, and by the time the last stitch was sewn, two hours had passed. It felt like a lifetime. Once Dr. Tolan’s job was complete, Dr. Derechin moved into the spotlight. He tactically brought the patient back to life, balancing both science and art, while seeking any sign of consciousness. Time stopped. The patient flinched, and the room exhaled collectively.

Over the next five days I was able to witness over a dozen procedures, while the team completed a total of 35 procedures by the end of the week. I met every patient and feel blessed to have crossed paths with so many strong and selfless people.

CME2016 Nick Christopher 4.20.16

I’m convinced that our translators, trip coordinators, nurses, doctors, surgeons, and volunteers are world class. To have been a part of such an incredible team is an experience I will forever cherish and never forget.

I continue to work with Love Without Boundaries as a Cleft Care Assistant Coordinator and look forward to finding ways to use my experience for good. Plans have already begun for 2017’s exchange.

As I’ve told many of the team members — my bags are packed!

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

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  • NDonovan says:

    Hello Baili, I would love to speak with you. Please email me at nick.donovan@lwbmail.com

    Thank you for reaching out!


  • Baili Hu says:

    Hi Nick,
    I just wanted to say my immense gratitude to you and all those who are in LWB and those doctors and nurses and volunteers from US and from China!! The boy above, your team named George, is coming to our family soon, early next year.
    My husband and I both grew up in China and came to US for higher education and have settled in Oregon. We have two biological children, my daughter is a college freshman and my son a high school freshman, who both are very excited to have a little brother coming from China! As matter of fact my daughter is studying in a college in NY aiming to become a doctor and she is so moved and inspired by your great work in China and has said to me that she,too, would volunteer wherever there are needs once she finishes her study.

    I am making a little lifebook about our adoptive son and would like to fill in the details as much as possible. I was wondering if it is ok to know where Dr.Tolan and Dr.Derechin come from and the names of other doctors and nurses who helped care for him. Do you still remember George? More photos about him? Do you have anything else to tell me? Thank you for those beautiful photos that definitely will be part of his book!