Creating Smiles, Improving Lives


Ray’s parents arrived from North Carolina yesterday. I’m so happy they will be taking care of Jackson. It’s guilt-free childcare. A win-win for everyone. Thanks, Babi and Pa!

The morning was frantic. OMG! Where is my passport?! I can’t find my sunglasses! Where are those little yellow Austin Smiles luggage tags?!  While I’m running around, Ray is in his car, suitcase already loaded, looking at something on his iPhone. You see, my husband is always on time, and I’m always barely on time—same result, but an entirely different process. The combined effect is, well, vinegar and baking soda comes to mind. Hellooo! I could use some help here! The look on his face tells me I better get my act together and get in the car. There’s no way we were going to be late meeting Kendyl at the airport. Thankfully, once we get on the road, we’re simpatico again, a veritable Lewis and Clark (if Lewis was a back seat driver and Clark refused to look at a map).

We meet Kendyl at Austin airport’s United Airlines check-in at 13:27. That’s exactly 18 minutes early. “See, I told you we’d be on time,” I say in sotto voce, through gritted, grinning teeth. Kendyl has been running this organization for 17 years and it’s a well-oiled machine. I’m not very organized, but I love organization. I admire it from afar like an exotic animal. I can’t be the only one, entire stores are dedicated to the concept. I’m dazzled watching as each bag gets a number and letter coded laminated tag, which then gets cross-referenced to a spreadsheet—neat, orderly, efficient perfection. We each get an extra bag filled with medical equipment to check with our personal bag. These bags are loaded with medical supplies—sutures, bovies, drapes, gloves, IVs, bags of saline, dressings, tweezers… Tweezers? Now that’s an instrument even I can use. In fact, I consider myself somewhat of a pro at using tweezers. Unfortunately, I don’t think my expertise is going to do anyone any good on this trip.

When meeting and greeting our co-volunteers, the excitement is palpable. At first that causes pause. Are we a little too happy? I mean, this is serious stuff. The people we are about to see are poor and with physical deformities. Our smiles seem misplaced in light of their need. Then I realize smiles are exactly what everyone needs.  And wouldn’t it be kind of weird if an organization named Austin Smiles didn’t smile? Just sayin’. I’m sure there will be lots of gut-wrenching moments later—not that that’s what we’re looking for, but given the crazy world we live in I think it’s best to grab hold of humor and happiness whenever you can.

Frankly, I’m starting to find the whole thing intimidating. So many of these volunteers have such obviously useful skills—doctors, nurses, scrub techs, all with years of experience. It makes me feel like I just walked into a room and forgot to put my clothes on. I feel completely underdressed—or under skilled—for the occasion. Their ambition to do good—and their ability to actually do it—humbles me.

Kendyl asks me if I’m excited to see my husband in action. One of the things I’m most looking forward to is getting to see my husband do what he loves to do more than anything else: surgery. I should confess that I’m slightly nervous about it, too. Not because of the blood or anything, but because I always know how to do things better. At least I think I do. You might think that my lack of medical education would deter me from telling him he’s going about a jaw distraction all wrong, but you’d be surprised. I’m not proud of this tendency, but it’s a known fact in our house that mommy knows best. (Just writing this makes me want to give my husband a big hug. I’m pretty horrible, aren’t I, honey? Sorry.) For those of you who might not have packed your sense of humor, I am kidding. I will be appropriately deferential to my awesome-sauce husband when (and only when) observing him in his fiefdom.

If you even bothered to read this far into the blog, you have probably figured out that there was not a whole lot to say today. Tomorrow is clinic day, when the operation rooms get set up, patients are screened and good surgical candidates are determined. I am looking forward to meeting some wonderful people.

Stay tuned.

WAIT! Don’t go! There’s more. I wrote the above on the plane. Did you know it’s only a two and a half hour flight from Houston to San Salvador? I did not know that. Anyway, even though it is late, I thought you might like to know we all made it. We were greeted by Rotarian liaison, Wayne Johnson, and a bunch of armed military escorts. The airport welcomed us with a series of brief power outages. Then we waited for about an hour to locate a few missing bags. We found them. They are in Houston. Then we took a half-hour bus ride to the Princess Hilton in San Salvador. It takes a lot of coordination to travel 44 people. I think it went pretty smoothly. Tomorrow is a big day. Dr. Cullington, WE WILL BE ON THE BUS AT 7:30 am. Promise. Readers, I think things are going to get a lot more interesting from here on out, so stay tuned.

1 in 700 children are born with a cleft lip or palate

$250 covers the cost of one life-changing surgery

150 volunteers annually will change a child’s life forever

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