(Story by Hannah Reed and Photography by Ellie Falcao)
We first met Kevin on Sunday—Triage Day at the hospital. It was late afternoon at about 4:30pm. The rain was rushing down and the sky went from being bright and sunny to dark and overcast. There were still some patients in the hallways waiting to be seen by the doctors- still hoping for a chance to have surgery. As I walked through the hallway, Dr. Harshbarger motioned for me to join him in the room where they were scanning potential patients for surgery. He wanted me to know that Kevin, a 22 Salvadorian man, was in the room ready to be assessed. He happened to be one of the last people they even looked at and considered, and although the list for surgery had already been finalized, there were a few spots left to be filled. We were all astounded when Kevin told us he had slept on a bench in front of the hospital the night before so that he was sure he would be seen first. When I pictured Kevin in front of the hospital, it made me think of stories from the new testament where the sick would travel from all over and sleep outside in the wilderness to simply touch Jesus’s gown—they were that hopeful and that desperate to be made whole—and so was Kevin.
After the doctors examined Kevin, they determined that he needed a rhinoplasty surgery as well as an acrylic partial dental procedure for the teeth missing in the front of his gums. The operation was then scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Kevin was so excited when he found out that he would have surgery that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to ask him a few questions in his moment of joy. Little did I know of the bond we would have or the impact he would make on us all throughout the week.
Kevin lives in a small apartment in San Salvador, and he works at a local call center. He heard that Austin Smiles was coming to San Salvador via a Facebook announcement two weeks ago. When I asked him what he felt when he saw that post, he was honest with me and told me that even though he felt very excited, at the same time he was really afraid. The reason he came to the hospital alone that day was because he feared telling his mother and getting her hopes up—he hates seeing her cry. He came with his parents last year to be evaluated but they were too late—the list was already full, so the doctors told them to return the following year. When Kevin found out about the chance to have surgery this time, he made up his mind to come by himself and face his fears. He explained that lately he’s had so much anxiety about his condition. With a look of pain in his eyes, he asked me “ do you know what it’s like to be bullied? It’s so humiliating and gut wrenching to be called a pig by a laughing group of high-schoolers. I’ve gotten so tired of walking to the park or to the mall just to catch people staring at my face, laughing at me, or turning away. I’d been thinking to myself, if it’s not possible for me to have surgery this week, I am ready to put a mask on to hide my face. “
Kevin didn’t tell me about the bullies to make me feel sorry for him. He wanted me to understand the pain he has had to face his entire life, and also about his dream to give others like himself courage. When he saw the Facebook post about the surgeons coming to San Salvador, it gave him back a glimmer of hope. He knew that the bullying he endured throughout his life made him a stronger person, and he was proud of himself for staying positive despite the torment. Kevin started talking faster and louder as he told me about his dream to go to New York City and become a singer. He wants to bring a message of hope to those who feel angry with themselves, and want them to “be proud of who you are, you are a warrior, no one can define you, we were born to be brave.”
Now fast forward to three days later, Wednesday: Kevin’s surgery day. Ellie and I entered the hospital hallway to the row of patients waiting for surgery, and were met by a huge smile—our sweet Kevin. He was there with his parents. When we asked him how he was feeling about surgery, he probably used every adjective associated with the word “excited.” He was wearing a white shirt he had made that said “Austin Smiles” on the front with the date of his surgery, and on the back it said “New York” and “my number one fans, Ellie and Hannah.” Seeing that written on his shirt was yet another confirmation to me that there was nothing else I wanted to be in that moment other than Kevin’s fan. And he is right; I believe with all of my heart that one day I will see him singing on a stage in New York City.
Later that day it came time for Kevin’s operation. His surgeon, Dr. Wegge, told me that it is rare to see a patient so excited before surgery. By this time, most of our team knew and loved Kevin, and even Dr. Harshbarger told his surgeons, “No pressure, but he may be the new face of Austin Smiles.”
While in surgery, our photographer, Ellie, went in the OR and overhead Dr. Greives telling Dr. Wegge that they’d better give Kevin the best nose possible because he was going to be in music videos one day. I think that comment represents what our whole team believes to be true—each child or adult on the operating table will have the chance to chase their dreams and not let their physical features deter them.
Kevin’s was the last operation of the day and the doctors worked late, so Thursday morning came around bright and early. I happened to be wearing Christmas scrubs that day so I kept joking to everyone that it was Christmas in June, and that we were a team of Santa’s elves from America who had come to bring children new smiles… Cheesy? Yes, super cheesy. But by this point in the week, all of our jokes were pretty tacky. Little did I know that I would actually be the one receiving a gift later that day.
Kevin wasn’t discharged with the others that morning as he was dizzy and tired from surgery, so Ellie and I thought we wouldn’t have the chance to say goodbye since we wanted to give him some space to recover. Around 4 ‘a clock one of the nurses told us to come quickly—Kevin wanted to give us something. We hurried over to the hallway where Kevin was surrounded by a few of our volunteers. He presented both of us the most thoughtful gift I may have ever been given. Inside the glass jar was a picture of the three of us in the hospital together, as well as a letter thanking us for our kindness to him. Also inside was a USB with songs he had written and recorded. I’m positive there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
For some reason, this blog post was the hardest for me write. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that it’s posted quite a bit after Thursday. Lack of sleep or internet are great excuses, but really I didn’t want to cry again because I knew that I would cry if I sat down and thought about Kevin. It’s not that Kevin makes me sad; it’s actually quite the opposite. Kevin has more joy than almost anyone I’ve ever met. The love and joy I felt from Kevin makes me want to be kinder and more loving even to those that don’t always seem to deserve it.
Kevin, I want you to know that we are all so thankful to have had the chance to meet you, to become your friends, your fans, and we will forever be changed knowing that we, Austin Smiles, were able to change your life and help make your wildest New York City dreams come true. #borntobebrave