Reflections on the 2012 Cleft Exchange
Cleft trips are always emotionally and physically exhausting. The months of preparation, the long plane rides, the huge, overweight suitcases that are wrestled through the airports and begged through check-in without overweight fees, the physical aliments in a foreign country, and the long, hard hours in an unfamiliar hospital all become insignificant compared to the moment that the first child comes back from the operating room.
The joy and honest disbelief that such a transformation of the child’s appearance has occurred in just an hour or two of time lifts you to an energetic high. Suddenly the exertion of trotting up and down the hospital stairs and long hours of hard work become painless and easy!
The first day always starts at a quick pace. There is no time for jet lag or easing into a different culture. We hit the ground running. On this trip, 35 babies were assessed and many were admitted to hospital to be prepared for surgery in the following days or sent, with their caregivers, to nearby local hotels to wait their turn. This all happened on the Sunday that the team arrived after long, grueling flights.
For me, the faces I have seen only in emails and excel files suddenly turn into real live babies and toddlers who either greet me with a smile or a scream. Personalities emerge, and I get to know each one individually. I am thrilled to be able to give each child a beanie baby and bib, symbols of the love and good wishes carried across the ocean from people who wanted to do something — anything — to help.
I think of each sponsor and make mental notes about each child so I can share the details with the people who are changing each child’s life. I take pictures — hundreds and hundreds of pictures. These are not only for the sponsors but also for the child who receives this life-changing opportunity.
I am the keeper of each child’s history, pictures and stories, and I take this role seriously. My coworker was somewhat distressed by this: “How can you take so many pictures?” He worries that each picture must be viewed to decide which will be chosen for that day, reduced in size and emailed, not a fun job at the end of a long day. But all I can think of is that each picture is a tiny piece of that child’s history. Each picture will mean the world to an adopted child or adult who may end up with very little information about their beginnings in life.
I worry about the children I have met on previous trips who still do not have families of their own. I carry them in my heart until I hear that they are home. While it is wonderful to see them again, I wish that it could be different. They return because they have not been adopted yet for various reasons, and some were not able to receive surgery due to being in too fragile a physical state.
This trip, Harris and Louise returned for their palate surgeries after having lips repaired in Fuzhou by Dr. Ness in 2010. Harris was the baby who most often ended up in my lap. I have videos of playing with him and making him giggle before and after surgery a year ago. At the end of the trip in Fuzhou, Jenn Sayler and I cuddled Harris and Louise all the way to the airport. We had whispered that we hoped a forever family was coming soon to scoop them up. We had held on to them all the way to the check-out counter, only then reluctantly returning them to their caregivers’ arms so they could board their domestic flight back to their orphanage. We boarded our flights back to the U.S.A., wishing we had been able to carry them home back to families.
It was sad to see them again, still in an orphanage and still without families of their own. Once again I reconnected with them when they arrived to the hospital, already knowing what I could do that would comfort them when scared or in pain. They are now toddlers and distrustful of foreigners. I was sad I could no longer cuddle them but happy to see that they turned to their caregivers for comfort. This is a good sign that they will be able to attach to a new adoptive family one day in the future. I saw them through surgery once again, this time with renewed hope that they will soon have families of their own.
On the trip to Fuzhou in October 2010, we worried endlessly over Blaise. We took turns holding and snuggling with him during breaks from our nursing rounds. He was impossibly tiny and frail from his multiple medical problems. To see him fat and happy on this trip was so amazing and wonderful! After a previous repair done in another city had failed, Dr. Ness was able to repair his lip, and Blaise now looks like the adorable toddler he is.
The news that a child has been chosen for adoption after their surgery is our paycheck for the hard work we put in. I look forward to each update and search for the news that a child has been adopted. The sad truth is that until a child’s lip has been repaired, it is hard for prospective families to picture how they might fit into their family. Many families see the defect first and not the child within. Once repaired, the child shines through, and many are chosen quickly by waiting families.
Being back in the U.S.A. is surreal during the first days home. It is hard to make the transition from China time to U.S. time, but it is also hard to leave all of the children that we have fallen in love with behind. I drift off to sleep and awaken wondering how Emily is doing. Has she settled into Heartbridge? Is her incision healing well? How soon will they start physical therapy with her? What are the possibilities for prosthetic legs for her?
I wonder about all of the nannies and children from Guizhou. Did they get back home to their villages? How is Emma’s incision? How cute will she be when her incision heals and her hair grows back from all of the IVs given during her pneumonia bout just weeks before the trip?
How is Michael? Are the caregivers still sitting him upright and a little forward so his food goes down the correct way? Do I need to show them how to do this again? I know I can’t as I am across the ocean — but still, I worry.
Will I ever forget Louise and her cracker? No, never. But I hope to hear that one day soon she is charming her new parents with her winning smile.
I miss the team with whom I have worked so closely. I still have plenty to do once at home: medical records to complete and submit to their files, pictures to organize, and summaries of the trip to write and share. I miss the company of sharing the work in person instead of online.
Surgery trips are exhausting, elating, and life-changing. No one walks away untouched by what we have experienced.
~Maureen Brogan Gealey, RN, Director of Medical Exchanges