(Story by Hannah Reed and Photography by Ellie Falcao)
Today was triage day at the hospital—very emotional and hectic for everyone. The doctors and team decided which children and adults were candidates for surgery based on their age, need, state of health, and severity of condition.
We arrived at the military hospital this morning at 8am, with the whole team dressed in our yellow Austin Smiles t-shirts (yes, no way to miss us!) and split up into two teams. One team went upstairs to the operating rooms to unpack the crates of instruments and medical equipment we brought all the way from Austin and prep the operating rooms for surgery tomorrow. The other team split up into three different rooms to start the triage process. When the children were brought upstairs to be evaluated, they were first looked at by a plastic surgeon. If the child met the requirements, he or she would then go to the next room to be evaluated by an anesthesiologist who then sent the child on to the third room to be evaluated by our speech therapy team and ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist.
Numerous families had been at the hospital since before sunrise, waiting for our team to arrive. Others actually spent the night outside the hospital hoping to be first in line. There were around 300 people that came here today, with about 117 of them being children or adults needing an operation. There were rows of chairs in the hospital courtyard set-up; babies and children were sitting on their parent’s laps as there were more people than chairs. The children were grouped from youngest to oldest, with the smallest babies given priority to be evaluated first. The nurses and volunteers took them in groups of five up the stairs to be seen first by a plastic surgeon. Once the children had passed through all three sections, they were sent to wait in the hallway until everyone was seen. The doctors then had a meeting to review each patient’s chart with photos and decide how many surgeries they could do per day and how many hours each one would take. Only one-third of the patients that came to the hospital today were put on the operation list.
Seeing the parents smiling faces walking out of the third room, knowing that their child had a chance to be operated on gives you a joy that cannot be explained in words, yet seeing the disappointment on their faces as they leave the rooms when they are told the surgery is not possible- or they have to wait another year- really makes your heart hurt.
Nonetheless, despite the sound of babies crying, the smell of diapers needing changing, and the hours waiting in the heat, I’ve never seen more patient and kind people in my life. Most of the families there had been told by doctors in their country that their child’s surgery wouldn’t be possible. Even if the surgery was possible, the parents wouldn’t be able to afford it. They were scared, they were tired, they were anxious, yet there was a glimmer of hope in their eyes. Hope that comes from knowing a team from America cared enough about their children to improve their quality of life.
In the midst of the hundreds of stories of families that came here today, there were a few faces and smiles that became my friends. Lester Alexander, the pudgiest and squishiest 11 month old in the hospital, came here with his 19 year old mother Gabriela and grandmother. He was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip. His mother found out about the team from Austin Smiles just last week from her pastor at church, and they traveled from a town a few hours south to get here. You could see the blend of hope and anxiousness in her eyes as she held her little boy and talked to the doctors. He had been throwing up and feverish, so he may have to wait till later in the week to have surgery, if, and only if, the doctors determine he is a good fit for surgery. Because he’s not feeling well, we weren’t successful in making him smile until one of our teenage volunteers, Anton, brought out a floppy eared Snoopy puppet that finally made him laugh. Success!