Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just to give you an update on ROB finally... (after all, that was the original intention of this blog until it got hijacked by my trip with Operation Smile!)

The ship was scheduled to leave Bahrain the same day I left (November 6), but a maintenance problem kept them there for almost two weeks longer. It was probably a nice break for them, truthfully. I got several emails from Rob describing nice dinners they had at local restaurants! And of course I'm sure everyone enjoyed the opportunity to go out a have a beer or two (or more!) in the evenings!

They're back underway now and unfortunately were at sea for Thanksgiving. As far as I know, they don't have any more interesting port visits planned until they start to head home. Right now they're scheduled to be at sea for Christmas, but maybe they'll be able to pull together a quick port visit somewhere!

He did call me today for Thanksgiving, but we were only able to talk for about half an hour. It was great to hear his voice, though.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! After going on the mission so recently, I definitely realize how much I have to be thankful for on this day.

OpSmile Mission - Final Thoughts

I've been back home for a few days now and I'm suffering withdrawals from Morocco! I cannot put into words how much I absolutely loved everything about my mission experience in Tetouan. The people that we met were amazing...both the volunteers and the patients and their families. I've never in my life been kissed and hugged so much. It makes you realize how privileged we are in our lives when you see these families that have sacrificed so much in order to give their children the opportunity to have this life-changing surgery. During this mission, we were able to operate on 189 children and adults. That's a huge number; most missions average between 100 and 150 surgeries. But I think our entire team wanted to make sure that everyone who was eligible for a surgery did in fact receive a surgery, even if it meant later-than-usual nights at the hospital. It's completely worth it, though, when you see the utter happiness of the families when their kids come out of surgery.

I'm sure I'll get to go on another mission in the future, but I don't know if anything will ever compare to this first one. Hopefully Rob will get to join me on the next mission. What an awesome experience it would be to go through something like this together.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about the mission and Operation Smile in general! I encourage you to check out our website at if you're interested in learning more about our organization!

OpSmile Mission - Day 9 - FINAL DAY

I couldn't believe that we were up to our final day so quickly! Friday was meant to be a shorter day, with only 20-some surgeries scheduled. The surgeries were finished by about 2:00 and a small group of decided to visit the 'souk' in the old Medina to do some last-minute shopping. This was a much grittier shopping venue than the one we had visited in Chefchaouen. A local gentleman kind of latched on to us to be our "guide," which annoyed me a little at first, but later I was glad he was there to lead us through the maze of the Medina. He also showed us all the different sections of the souk...different crafts or types of shops were definitely all grouped together. For instance, there was a woodworking area of the souk, or a leather goods section. He made sure that we didn't miss anything.
Not quite picturesque scene as in Chefchaouen!

He of course also led us into some particular shops which I'm sure pay him to bring tourists through. That was OK, though, as they were interesting shops. One was a rug shop, in which I bought two rugs and a blanket. I think I bargained for a fairly good price, but who knows!
Paul and Nuria in the rug shop.

The other shop he took us to was a spice and oils shop. That turned out to be quite the experience! The owner of the shop showed us many different spices and aromatherapy minerals, then brought out a bottle of massage oil. He said it was great for backaches, to which I laughed and said I needed that. So he tells me to come with him to a corner of the store where they had a makeshift massage bench. I was a bit leery, but I followed him. Next thing I know, some guy pops out of the back of the store, tells me to take off my jacket and lay on the bench. Again, I was a little unsure of what was going on, but I complied. Once I'm laying down on my stomach, this guy lifts up the back of my shirt, unhooks my bra (a little shocking!), and starts giving me a full massage! It might have been very relaxing if it weren't in the middle of the store with my shopping comrades watching and laughing! I thought it would only be a couple minutes, but I think it lasted for a full quarter of an hour. And I have to admit it did feel good, once I got over the shock of what was happening! I felt compelled after that to buy the massage oil. We'll have to see if Rob can match the massage skills of the mystery man in the souk!
Me and my masseuse!

Friday evening was the final team party, hosted at the house of one of the hospital administrators. That turned out to be very fascinating, as it was a traditional Muslim party in that the men and women were segregated in two different rooms. Of course, we didn't realize this at first, so when we got there Paul and I grabbed a beer and sat down to watch a soccer game with some of the men. After a few minutes we started to realize I was the only woman in the room. I looked across the hall and saw that all the women were in the other room! So I meekly slid out of the men's room and into the women's room. Just to add to my faux pas, apparently Muslim women don't drink alcohol. There I sit with my beer, feeling rather conspicuous. Nobody seemed to mind, however, and in fact they brought in a few more beers later for the other American women (I was the only one to actually partake, however!).

The "men's room"

The "women's room"

Paul and I occasionally met in the hall and whispered, "Seriously, is it going to be like this all night?" Occasionally men would wander into the women's room, but they were told in no uncertain terms to get out! Eventually they even shut the doors and posted one of the servers at the door to keep the men out. The women's room was definitely the 'party' room! There was much singing and dancing. One thing I learned on this trip is that Moroccans love to sing and dance! And they all seem to have such lovely voices...I'm jealous!
The last supper!

Anyway, eventually they let the men in when it was time for dinner. We had quite a feast of traditional Moroccan food, then it was time for the speeches. Most everyone spoke in French or Arabic, so it kind of dragged on for those of us who didn't understand, but it was great to have that final chance to say goodbye. We didn't get back to the hotel until 1:30 AM, which meant no time to sleep whatsoever...we still needed to pack and be ready for the bus that was coming to pick us up at 3:00AM to take us to the airport!

OpSmile Mission - Day 8

Thursday turned out to be an interesting day for at least one of our team members! When we left the hotel at 6:30AM, we realized that Paul (one of the Patient Imaging Technicians) wasn't on the bus. We were a bit concerned, but figured he must have caught a ride with one of the Moroccan volunteers that had their car with them. However, when we got to the hospital and couldn't find him, we realized that he must have been left behind back at the hotel. Not only was he left behind, but he was also locked in the room! As I mentioned previously, these weren't exactly state-of-the-art timeshares. They had an old-fashioned key that you had to use to lock the door from both the outside and the inside. There was one key per unit, and of course Paul's roommates had the key and had locked the door behind them when they left! So he was locked in the room, which had no phone. Not that he could have called anyone anyway; since it was a timeshare, there was no lobby or any staff working. He could have yelled for help, I suppose, but there would be no one to hear him.

We debated what to do, but finally I asked the bus driver to take me back to the hotel so I could rescue him from his confinement! However, when we got there he was no where to be found. At this point I was really concerned. We went back to the hospital, and found that he had just arrived. It turns out that he had climbed onto the roof and jumped to the ground, then walked two miles to the Sofitel where they called a cab for him! I tried to convince him to recreate his great escape later, but apparently once was enough!

By Thursday everyone was starting to hit the wall. Most days started at 6:30AM and we didn't leave the hospital until 8:00. Add a late dinner into the plan most days, and we were exhausted by this point. Imagine our excitement when it was announced that we wouldn't start until 7:30 the next morning!

OpSmile Mission - Day 7

Wednesday was another day of surgeries. As the week wore on, we started doing more of the adult surgeries and the more complicated children's surgeries. As usual, I spent some time in Medical Records and the rest of the day in either the pre-op or post-op rooms with the kids.

I took this picture of me with one of the kids in the pre-op playroom. He was quite intrigued when I showed him the image on the camera, so I decided to show him some of the other pictures I had. He LOVED all the pictures I had of cats! He would start giggling when we came across those!

One of the things that I liked about the mission in Tetouan was that it was a "local mission" as opposed to an "international mission." What is the difference, you ask? An international mission, such as the one in Casablanca, is comprised of a team of credentialed medical professionals from around the world who travel to a mission site in one of our 25 partner countries to treat children, usually for a two-week time frame. An international mission is organized through our Norfolk headquarters with the help and support of the Operation Smile Foundation in the host country. A local mission, on the other hand, is organized by the OpSmile Foundation in the country and teams of in-country medical volunteers conduct local programs to take care of more of their children. This means that the team in Tetouan was almost entirely comprised of Moroccan volunteers. I think the team roster showed 45 Moroccans, 5 or 6 Americans, and a couple Europeans. By comparison, the team in Casablanca had about 30 Americans, and the rest of the team was made up of volunteers from around the world, including Britain, South Africa, Australia, France, Jordan, and Ireland.
Me with Ismail and Aicha, both from Morocco.

I'm sure both models provide an unbelievable opportunity to meet a variety of fascinating people, but I personally really enjoyed being immersed in a situation with so many local volunteers. They were able to provide so much insight to local culture and customs and language. It was obvious that they were proud of their country and wanted to share it with us in every way that they could. They were also very helpful in advising what a taxi ride SHOULD cost (as opposed to what the driver would try to charge us!), and in bargaining for goods when shopping in the medina! But most of all it was great to make new friends from a completely different culture than our own. I think that if everyone had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in a Muslim culture, it would go a long way toward creating a better understanding in the world.

Wednesday evening we had a pizza party and bonfire right on the beach at our timeshare! It was a wonderful evening and a great way to blow off some steam. The pizza was ordered from Pizza're never far from America, no matter where you go! Mohammed, Ismail, me, Jemma, and Paul.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

OpSmile Mission - Day 6

Tuesday - another day of many surgeries! There were 7 surgery tables set up in the operating room, and on average about 40 surgeries a day took place during the surgery week. In addition to cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, we were able to help many children and adults with other conditions such as burn scars or facial tumors. The burn victims really got to me. We saw so many children that had been severely burned, and you just wonder how that happens. One 9-year-old boy had severe burn scars on his right arm from when he fell into a vat of boiling oil when he was a toddler. Not only did he have the burns, but his wrist was bent at a horrible 90-degree angle from breaking it during the incident. I had to leave the room because I was nearly in tears at the thought of the agony he must have endured (and the pain that he seemed to still suffer).

She was so good-natured!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was originally scheduled to leave Tetouan on Wednesday and travel to the mission site in Casablanca for the last few days of the mission. However, I had grown so close to the team members in Tetouan that I decided to stay there for the remainder of the week. Not only would I have missed my new friends, but I also wanted to see the patients through their surgeries and post-op care as well. I had been staying in a different hotel from most of the team (I was with the film crew in a hotel near the hospital), but on Tuesday I moved to the team hotel. Well, it wasn't really a hotel...they were actually timeshares about 30 minutes away right on the Mediterranean. Sounds lovely, right? Not quite! They were older and certainly not very comfortable. Each unit had two bedrooms and one bathroom, but it was hit-or-miss on whether the shower would work each morning. If it did actually work, it would flood the entire bathroom floor. But we weren't spending much time in the rooms anyway, so it was survivable.

The view from our unit's balcony. The view on the inside? Not quite so nice!

Tuesday evening we had quite a treat - McDonalds! Yes, I know that's lame, but I was so sick of Moroccan food at that point that I savored my quarter-pounder as if it was a 5-star gourmet meal! Don't get me wrong - Moroccan food is delicious. But they seem to use the same spices on everything, so each meal tastes the same no matter what you order. A cheeseburger and french fries was just what I needed!

The sign behind us and to the left says "McDonald's" in Arabic.

OpSmile Mission - Days 5

Monday morning began a hectic week of surgeries. I continued to help out wherever I could, but spent most of my time in medical records. Although the screening process technically was over, new potential patients continued to wander in throughout the week as word spread that Operation Smile was doing surgeries at the hospital. When we weren't screening new patients, we were filling out charts, doing statistics, making identification bracelets for patients...there was never a lack of projects to be done!

This was also the day that the first 10 surgery patients were released from the hospital, including Mourad and Abkader (another young boy whom the film crew followed). Both boys are from the same town (Chefchaouen, the mountain village we had visited the day before), and although they did not know each other before this journey, they've now formed a friendship that will continue once they return back home.

Mourad (in green) and Abkader receive their discharge instructions from a nurse.

On Monday I also wandered into the surgery rooms for the first time. At first I was a little reluctant, as it just didn't feel right to walk up to a surgery table and watch someone be cut and stitched! I also wasn't sure how my stomach would handle it! But I found the whole process to be fascinating. It was incredible to see the very mission of Operation Smile occuring right in front of my eyes. Most cleft lip surgeries are not overly difficult or time-consuming; a simple one can be done in 45 minutes or so. But that simple surgery can be the most important thing that ever happens for the child and his or her family.

Dr. Handouf Abdellah performing a life-changing surgery

Monday, November 12, 2007

OpSmile Mission - Day 4

Sunday was a day off, but we still went to the hospital in the morning to visit the kids who had surgery on Saturday. Sunday was also the day that the list was posted that told who would get surgery. Many families showed up in person to read the lists, but other families called in to get the results. There were only a couple people who we had to turn down, but we connected them with a specialist in Casablanca who was willing to help them. It made for a very happy day at the hospital

Families read the list of scheduled surgeries.

After the list was posted, the team took off for Chefchouan, a beautiful city in the Rif Mountains. We hiked through the winding alleys around the city, and eventually came to the Medina and all its fabulous arts and crafts stalls! I bought a couple necklaces for myself, a cashmere scarf, and a handwoven cactus silk rug. You have to bargain the prices, of course, which I actually enjoy. I probably would have bought more if we’d had more time, and if I had more room in my suitcase!

Local handicrafts and rugs for sale in the Medina.

Myself and Karen in a beautiful blue alleyway.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

OpSmile Mission - Day 3

Another day of screening on Saturday, PLUS the first surgeries happened as well! Only 10 kids were scheduled for surgery on Saturday; the bulk of the surgeries will be next week. I spent a little bit of time in pre-op with the kids scheduled for surgery, but I didn’t want to stick around too long because of my cold (which is moving out of my head into my chest now). Mourad has developed quite an interest in photography…he loves to take my digital camera and take pictures! He was one of the kids in the pre-op room, but he must not have been too nervous…he took pictures of everyone in there! He’s become quite adept at positioning people, then switching it to the “view” mode so that he can show them their pictures when he’s done.

Mourad taking pictures in pre-op

After leaving pre-op, I went back down to Medical Records and spent the rest of the day doing more screening. Sometimes we were totally swamped with new patients, then at other times it would get slow and we would work on prepping new packets and organizing the records we had already done.

Myself and Mourad

Saturday evening we ventured to the Sofitel in M’Diq, which is a fancy resort area about 30 minutes from Tetouan. We had a delicious meal there with the whole team…I swear, I don’t EVER want to eat again! I can barely zip my pants at this point. The days are long, but the experience has been priceless!

My favorite picture so far from the mission!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

OpSmile Mission - Day 2

I’m still not feeling well, but at least I made it through a full day this time! Friday was another full day of screening (where the potential patients show up to be interviewed, photographed, and examined by medical staff to see if they’re healthy enough for surgery). Some patients have made incredible journeys to get here. For instance, Mourad (whom I mentioned in the previous entry) was making his third attempt to get surgery. His family heard about an OpSmile mission last year and traveled to Tetouan, only to find out that they were too late…the mission was already over. Then they heard about this mission, but came LAST month instead. Luckily, though, the third time seems to be the proverbial charm!

As a staff member, I don’t have a real ‘job’ during the mission, so I kind of wander around and look for ways to be helpful! For part of the morning I helped a student volunteer hand out stickers and toys to the children as they waited for their turn in screening. The children often start out being rather shy, but it doesn’t take long for them to start loosening up. The parents have been very appreciative of the attention and small gifts.

Later in the day I wandered into Medical Records and started helping out there. I was in the “in-take” area, which is the very first of the screening stations. We saw the patients when they first came in and took their pictures, filled out a little bit of info on their forms, then sent them over to the translators for them to ‘interview’ the patients and fill out medical history. It was actually quite fun. We usually don’t speak the same language, so it’s kind of fun to try to communicate things like, “Move a little bit to the left,” “Look up a little higher,” “Hold the medical folder upright so we can read the numbers in the pic,” “Take the folder and have a seat in the hallway.” At first I was a little uptight about trying to communicate these things, but after a while it just becomes funny! It’s amazing how much a smile can communicate. I just keep smiling and pointing until they figure out what I’m getting at!

A potential surgery patient and her parents are interviewed during the screening process

I really enjoyed working in medical records. I kind of wish I could have gotten the proper training in it before the mission, but learning as I go along is OK, too!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Start of the Operation Smile Mission in Tetouan!

Greetings from Morocco! I’m in the midst of the Operation Smile medical mission in Tetouan, Morocco, and I can honestly say it’s been an amazing experience. Unfortunately, I’m also sick as a dog, so that’s limiting what I can do at this point, but hopefully I’ll feel better soon. I started feeling sick on the flight to Casablanca…severe congestion, sore throat, headache, etc. It’s kept getting worse during the first few days here, but I’m finally starting to improve. I’ve still got a horrible hacking cough, but I’m able to breathe again…a big step forward!

Anyway, I arrived in Casablanca very late Tuesday night; actually, more like 1:00AM Wednesday. I spent Wednesday in Casablanca, touring with a couple of my mission colleagues, and then having a fabulous lunch at a very authentic Moroccan restaurant. Before I left for Morocco, Rob was concerned that I wouldn’t find anything to eat. Well, he was very wrong! I bet I’ve gained five pounds on this trip! At least.

Wednesday evening a small group of us took a van to Tetouan, where the mission is occurring. It was about a 6 hour drive. The scenery was probably great, but I couldn’t tell you…it was dark! Plus, I was asleep as soon as we got out of the city.

Thursday morning was the first morning of the mission. I spent the morning with the film crew that is documenting the journey of three children who are seeking operations. We ‘followed’ one boy, a 12-year-old named Mourad, as he went through the initial screening process. It was fascinating to me to see the filming process and what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’…like occasionally having to re-create a shot! Mourad and his father were very patient with the process, and were excellent at acting ‘normal’…not looking at the camera, etc.

Mourad and his father

Unfortunately, I got sent home before lunch because I was so sick! I really didn’t want to go back to the hotel on the first day, but I have to admit it was the best thing for me. Not just for me, but obviously I shouldn’t be around the kids when I’m so sick either. I went back to my room and slept until dinner time. Hopefully I can get over this quickly!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Visiting Rob in Bahrain

Last Wednesday (Oct. 31) I left the States for Bahrain to visit Rob. After the Dubai visit was cancelled, they decided to pull into Bahrain instead. Definitely not the hotspot that Dubai is, but Bahrain is definitely neat in its own right.

Since I didn’t get my ticket until two days before I left, the routing was not easy. I left Norfolk and flew into Detroit, where I had a seven hour layover before flying to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I laid over for three hours before boarding a flight to Bahrain, but we made a stop in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.) before reaching our final destination. All told, it was about a 30 hour trip. The only thing that made it remotely bearable was that I got upgraded to Business Class on the Detroit-Amsterdam flight (through much flirting and joking on my part, but it finally paid off!)

The travel truly wasn’t too bad. The flight from Amsterdam to Bahrain was interesting as we flew over Iraq for much of it. The flight path took us over Baghdad, and I’m pretty sure we witnessed an explosion of some sort in the city. We also flew over the oilfields of southern Iraq (at least, that’s what I’m assuming the orange lights were!)

Upon landing in Abu Dhabi we had quite the interesting experience. We were wheels-down and just about to hit the runway when the pilot suddenly aborted the landing and ascended again. It was a little nerve-wracking as the whole plane figured we were having a problem with the landing gear, but it turns out that we were ‘too close’ to another plane on the runway. We made the second landing attempt with no problems…whew!

But enough about my adventure in getting there! I got to the hotel at about 2:00AM Friday morning. Rob wasn’t scheduled to get off the ship until Friday afternoon, so I was able to sleep in for a while. Thank goodness! The hotel was literally right outside the gate of the US Navy Base in Bahrain, so he was able to walk there as soon as he got off the ship. There was a “Hail” that evening at the Officers Club for the new CO of the ship and a couple other new officers. That was fun, as I was able to meet everyone from the wardroom, not to mention some Australian Naval officers who were visiting as well. :-)

I had been warned about how crazy people get during the first night in port, and I got to witness it in full effect! Some serious drinking went down at the Officers Club, which carried over to the nightclub at our hotel. Let’s just say that not too many people could remember all the events of the night before (myself included!). But I’m sure it felt good for the guys to blow off some steam after a month or more at sea.

The rest of the visit wasn’t nearly as crazy. There aren’t a whole lot of tourist sites in Bahrain, but nonetheless it’s a fascinating place. You could almost describe it as a mini-Dubai. The architecture of the new buildings is cutting-edge, and it’s been very westernized. We didn’t run into a single person who didn’t speak English. Literally. It was easier to communicate and get around in Bahrain than in some parts of Europe. All signs were in both English and Arabic. There were more English channels on the TV than Arabic ones.

We twice went to the Seef Mall, which is as modern of a shopping mall as you’ll find anywhere. All the upper-end stores that you might find in London or New York were represented there. The food court featured MANY American fast food joints, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, and even Papa John’s. The Cineplex in the mall featured both Arabic and American movies. One movie that I was surprised to see playing was “Knocked Up.” I’ve not seen it yet, but I’ve heard it was so raunchy that some Americans walked out of it, so it was surprising to see it playing in a Muslim country. It’s obviously pretty liberal, though, as far as Muslim countries go. Apparently many Saudis treat it as a playground, almost like Vegas…an escape from the very rigid lifestyle they live at home.

On Sunday we visited the “Gold Souk,” which is supposed to be the place to go to buy jewelry and other goods. It wasn’t busy at all, so we were hustled by every merchant in the place. It got a little uncomfortable after a while, so we decided to leave. About 10-15 minutes after we left, I started feeling really, really itchy. Apparently I had an allergic reaction to SOMETHING at the souk (the fake Coach bags maybe? Or perhaps some of the cleaning supplies in the toilets?) Whatever it was, I broke out in hives in a HUGE way…all over my face, neck, chest and back. We immediately went back to the hotel so I could jump in a bath and lather myself in Benadryl cream, but that pretty much ruined the rest of the day. Some of the hives were nickel-sized and didn’t subside until the next morning. I’ve had that problem at the gym on the base at home, but this is the first time I’ve broken out in hives somewhere else. I don’t know what causes it, but it’s VERY annoying.

The whole point of the trip, of course, was to see Rob, and we had a great time together. It’s so nice to be with the one person that you feel most comfortable with and with whom you can talk about anything. We both enjoyed Bahrain immensely, and talked about the possibility of him transferring there once spouses are allowed there again. (Right now it’s an unaccompanied tour, but that’s expected to change in the next couple years.)

The visit was painfully short (only 3 full days together), and now I’m off to Morocco for the OpSmile mission. Another adventure awaits!