Let me guess. You’re intrigued with the idea of going overseas to help people, but you’re not sure what to do or what organization to do it with. Here’s the hard sell on why you should make the plunge, and choose Operation of Hope. Find out if you’re a good match for the fantastic community of people donating time, energy, and money, while receiving even more in return.
Most places in the world that need doctors, nurses, therapists, and translators, are in remote areas. And I mean: REMOTE. These are places you’ve never heard of, with languages you didn’t know about.
Getting to these places requires multiple airports and bus trips. Sometimes with chickens. You’ll be pioneering the Instagram hashtags; blazing a trail that even Google hasn’t mapped out. You won’t be on a tour. You’ll be on an adventure.
Flexibility Is A Virtue
With Operation of Hope, we bring pretty much every essential we need to do a successful operation. However, my recent trip to the BEIT-Cure Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi included their well stocked store rooms as well. I was truly fortunate to work with such a wonderful crew of professionals there.
When you’re traveling with Operation of Hope, you’re thinking on your feet. You’re armed with your knowledge, skill, and experience, but you’re still riding in a bus with chickens. The new environment always means I have to think and plan more for my patients, and that in turn makes me a better surgeon.
There were examples of this on my last trip, during operations on adults for cleft lip repair. Since teenagers and adults vary in size, I could not use the common measurements for cleft lip repair in infants. Instead, I relied on general plastic surgery principles, repeated measurements on the adult lip, and planning ahead for repair on a bigger tissue area, with less pliable soft tissue.
I made it work, but it required that extra thinking and flexibility to do the best job possible for my patients in Malawi. This kind of achievement makes me want to high-five someone, usually myself.
REALLY getting to Know People
When traveling with friends and strangers for hours, you share everything with them, from meals to an operating room. Many of the shared experiences are new and unique. It’s rare to form those kinds of friendships in our everyday life, and it’s meaningful to get to know your fellow adventurers, as they will get to know you, VERY WELL.
This is a good thing. With the internet, it’s easy to IM/ email/ blog post/ do something that does not require actual human interaction, like talking to someone face-to-face or hugging a patient. Operation of Hope reveals our humanity, in that everyone on the team cares about each other, and each patient.
Of course, you will get to know yourself better as well – the good and the bad bits. On medical missions, self-reflection is unavoidable, and you will grow more patient and generous with each distraction-free experience.
You’re Not a Tourist- You’re a Guest
When you’re with Operation of Hope, you become a guest to a hospital and a community that desperately needs your services. Over and over, you meet people at the hospital, or talk to them, and rediscover that most people are the same, just with some cultural differences. In the streets and marketplace, your hosts introduce you to the owners of the stores and restaurants – it’s a wholly separate interaction from ordering chicken fingers from room service.
For example, without our wonderful hospital and hotel friends in Blantyre, we never would have found the following things in Malawi
– the best places to shop for jewelry, handicrafts, and other artisan objects directly from the artists
– organic local Italian food at Hostaria, with all dishes made from scratch
– delicious Indian food at Bombay Palace
– tours of Open Arms Malawi, a great place to have fun with kids
– tours of the local game parks and nature reserves, with discounts on admission
– true smiles and hugs of warmth and friendship
Learn Too Much About Macro and Micro Economics
I get that I’m sounding a lot like the UN, but one does learn about per capita GDP, birth rates, mortality rates, and have other fun filled adventures in macroeconomics in the host country. You’ll learn the conversion rates for local currency, how to haggle, the safest places to drink water or eat salad, and a myriad of other economic factoids that guidebooks can’t provide. The ability to actually immerse yourself in the local culture and see things that an average tourist would miss, is very cool.
Realize We Are Better Off in the USA
As soon as you see chickens on the bus, you start to really appreciate that you live in the most affluent country in the most affluent period of history in the world. Ever.
Running water? Hot water? Reliable Wi-fi? Working automobiles, paved streets, sports, cheap food and clean bed? The list is endless, but you get the point; we’re materially spoiled in the West and in the USA. Although we all know this, to FEEL it is another matter. It leaves a valuable and permanent impression.
Did I really, desperately miss cable TV, my cherished Wall Street Journal, or updates on US sports? No. Not really.
Bore Your Friends About Diseases
Ok, fine, exotic countries are riddled with diseases we don’t have in the US and in the industrialized First World. However, as a plastic surgeon, I’ve been vaccinated for pretty much everything you can imagine, and many things that you cannot. If you are a nurse or therapist, you probably have been too. Live a little, man.
Even the queasy should be heartened that any disease overseas can be avoided. Simply read up, take the necessary precautions, and torture your friends by using the unusual disease names in casual conversation. Spark some zesty debate over the best treatment choices for malaria, and don’t hold back, gross out your friends with your knowledge of hideous parasites. It’s worth the certain exile you’ll receive, from future dinner parties.
Realize that Travel is a Small Price to Pay
Dude/ Dudette- I am going to level with you.
I dread flying for 25-26 hours (NOT including stopovers), to get from San Francisco to Blantyre.
But once the trip is over, I realize that the minor travel discomfort is a small price to pay for the chance to profoundly help another person. It’s nothing, compared to the new extended family members I gain. The adventure, the experience of truly changing a child’s life and a family’s life too….well, it’s emotional my friend. And it’s real. It’s more than worth the trouble.
Plus, duty free shopping is pretty good during layovers.
Many medical missions require lengthy time commitments, like 1-12 months. Operation of Hope is very surgically oriented, so the time commitment is shorter, usually about 10-14 days. Of course, since you’re in an exotic location anyway, you could take a couple of days of vacation before or after your surgical trip to see your destination with your new found friends.
Remote locations are fascinating and cheap to visit. Malawi is obviously fairly expensive to get to, however, once you’re there, most things are dirt cheap.
Great meals are $5-8 per meal- including wine, multiple courses, and dessert. Game Preserves and hotels are inexpensive, by US and Western standards. Same with handicrafts and jewelry from the source. Don’t forget the safe feeling you enjoy, because you’re somewhere with your friends from Operation of Hope AND your new friends from the hospital. This is priceless, and difficult to replicate even with tour guides.
You Really Bond With Your Patients
In the US, of course health care workers care about patients. However, in Malawi, everyone kicks it up a notch.
I’m not certain that when I do a successful procedure in the US, everyone hugs the patient and takes group photos. Like, US patients might hug the doctor, but not the nurse/ janitor/ therapist/ dietician/ hospital pastor/ hospital administrator/ etc.
In Malawi, on the last day of rounds, each patient and their full family, gave us hugs and handshakes. That means everyone on the surgical team and hospital team. If you’re there, you’re getting hugged. And smile, because you’re also in the group photos. It’s very touching.
The most sublime moment for me was seeing one of my patients with a craniofacial problem. I did a small procedure on his nose to improve symmetry. I can’t do anything about his skull until we raise tons of money to get his procedure done in Johannesburg. Considering he’s 16 years old and needs about $100,000 for the procedure, there will unfortunately be little chance that he gets it.
Nevertheless, through a translator, he told the entire Operation of Hope team around his bed how happy he was to meet us. We listened as he explained that in his village, he is shunned. He hides in fear of being verbally abused, bullied, and attacked. He only comes out of his hut at dusk and at night. Only his parents love him, and they do what they can to help him out.
But the week he was in the hospital at Blantyre, he said he felt ‘normal’ for the first time. No one at the hospital treated him differently, and he could see the love and concern from the BEIT-Cure Hospital staff as well as the team on Operation of Hope.
I am saddened that I can’t fix his skull – yet- but happy that he knows we are all working to fix it someday.
ADDED BONUS – Vivid Dreams
Yeah, there’s a risk of malaria in Malawi. Then again, there’s a risk of food poisoning in your house or in the restaurant in your neighborhood. (You know the one.) Don’t get me started on lightening strikes and walking across the street.
We must consider the risks and benefits of contracting diseases whether at home on our couch, or actually EXPERIENCING LIFE TO IT’S FULLEST. Me? I’ll fly to someplace where there’s a low but real risk of malaria. Every time.
On that topic, taking anti-malaria medication does have it’s benefits – legal hallucinations. Malarone is a commonly prescribed medication taken while you’re in malaria country, and for about 1 week thereafter. The medication carries a small chance that you will have vivid dreams at night, with occasional hallucinations. I myself had very vivid dreams, which is a great bonus, since I usually forget my dreams.
Most importantly, I’m dreaming of going back to Malawi again soon!
We all want to help people, with the added bonus of becoming a more insightful person who changes for the better. That’s why I unconditionally recommend joining Operation of Hope for a future trip.
What, You Missed All of My Travel Photos?
What? You mean to tell me that you haven’t been religiously been reading all of the blog posts I’ve written about Operation of Hope in Malawi?
Fear not- the slid projector is rolling out, and you can click on the many juicy links below to find out how you can help spread awareness for cleft lip and cleft palate patients in Malawi!
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