Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Operation Smile Singapore: Six Day Challenge in Myanmar

It wasn't so much a challenge. More a visually-confronting assault on the senses. I'd put my hand up to be a volunteer with Operation Smile, a US-based medical charity concerned [mostly] with repairing facial disfigurements in kids caused by cleft lip and cleft palates.

Plastic surgeons work on a tiny patient in Mandalay's general hospital. Operations can last from 45mins to hours depending on the severity of the facial deformity.
I'd initially volunteered as the social photographer. Basically to record everything about the mission: from the transit and arrival of 30+ volunteers, unpacking, setting up the patient screening centre, an operating theatre, then covering the arrival of potential patients, photographing their progress through the theatre to the post-op room, and so on. Easy right?
Tools of the surgeon's trade.
This child is remarkably perky the morning after her cleft lip surgery. Mother is clearly happy enough to be the 'notice board' for the stickies handed out by the post-op support staff.
Proud father with his young son waiting patiently for surgery assessment on Day One.

On paper it looked OK but then the mission was set to fly to Yangon, then charter a plane into Mandalay. Its general hospital, though not entirely bereft of facilities, would probably make the hair on most Australian heads curl in panic.(Example: as the local TV people were interviewing one of the staff in the courtyard, a road accident patient was wheeled down the ramp into camera shot and left to lie in the sun while the porter went off to do something else. He was not left for long but in front of a TV crew? You get the drift).

Still a little dazed the morning after, this young child was responsive enough to my clumsy attempts to get his attention.
Pads are attached to little hands to prevent IV drips from accidentally being pulled out immediately after surgery. It's a poignant sight that I'll never forget.

In fact Mandalay General Hospital was definitely stuck in a 50s time warp. Another reason, I guess,  for why Operation Smile freights in all its equipment, drugs and accessories needed to operate on 100+ patients over the tight space of a eight days.

Day one lasted 12 hours. Day two was shorter, only ten hours. The workload for all involved was quite intense. Didn't matter whether it was medical records area, surgery or anaesthesiology. Add to this the fact that, as photographer, you can't do anything but document the progress of the staff amid the chaos of everyone squeezed into a workspace that was designed for a fraction of the staff. By the end of the week everyone was looking somewhat less healthy than when they arrived but I was most impressed that such a diverse group, flown in from ten different countries could work so seamlessly under such trying conditions.
Photographically the mission was a huge challenge. I even got the job of photographing the patients immediately before their operations, then straight after, before they woke up from the anaesthetic!

Despite the hard work, shortage of first world facilities (Arrgh! No decent Internet) I left Myanmar feeling a great sense of achievement. If asked, I'd do it again at the drop of a hat.

1 comment:

  1. "If you haven't any charity in your heart you have the worst kind of heart trouble" to cure it
    Help people, let's unite for one good cause, be a volunteer"save lives"!