Last week I was lucky enough to be able to go to Thies and help translate for an international project called Operation Smile. (www.OperationSmile.org) Operation Smile is an organization comprised of doctors, nurses, and volunteers from all over the world who travel to underdeveloped countries and perform reconstructive surgeries on individuals with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other facial and dental deformities. When in countries where the Peace Corps is present, PCV's are often used as a resource in translating. Because many of the doctors did not speak French, and many of the patients did not speak French (nor English obviously) but only local languages communication was a tad bit tricky. Luckily us volunteers came to the rescue, single handedly lifting the entire project out of its lingual CRISIS!
I had such an amazing time being able to hang out with all these wonderful people. Everybody was amazingly friendly and appreciative. I got to wear scrubs and watch surgeries. I got to follow the nurses around and ask all kinds of annoying questions. (If the nurses were annoyed by my constant inquisitiveness they didn't show it, bless their hearts). I met some really extraordinary Senegalese families who were extremely grateful for all these people did. Most of these people were really not used to being treated well at all by people in the medical profession. The Senegalese medical system is coarse, and often absent and uncaring. It is really sad. Families and patients are not provided for at all. Family members who accompany the patients are responsible for buying all the medicine themselves (including IVs--the nurses will put them in but the patient or family member has to go buy it). The family is responsible for feeding the patient (even water). All over the hospital you see families laying on mats with little gas stoves and all their belongings like clothes and blankets. Doctors and nurses don't talk to the patients unless they're commanding them to do something like "open your mouth." Bedside manner is completely non-existent. Patients are often yelled at, like it's their own fault for being sick or hurt.
While I was working in recovery this lady just came in after her facial surgery. She was still pretty out of it and not really conscious but the doctor wanted the Senegalese nurse present to make sure to tell her not to touch her face. So I told the nurse to tell her and he reached down and SMACKED her twice in the face and said "HEY, DON'T TOUCH YOUR FACE!" I couldn't believe it. I grabbed his hand and told him to go away. All the OpSmile nurses were really upset. I mean, she JUST had surgery ON HER FACE and this nurse is SLAPPING her!
Being translators and their only source of communication we got really close to the patients and families. It was really nice to see them all the way from screening to surgery and through final exams when they're all fixed and relatively out of pain. But it was difficult being the bearers of bad news as well. There were several children who couldn't go through with the operation because they were anemic or malnourished. One little boy had a tumor in his throat. Some kids had eye infections that had to be treated before surgery. Its really hard telling a parent who traveled hours to get there that their daughter couldn't have the surgery because she didn't qualify or wasn't healthy enough, and because we were the translators they had to hear it from us.
In spite of the rough times I loved every minute of my Operation Smile week. I cannot wait to go to nursing school so that I can participate in Operation Smile as well (I am in the process of applying to schools right now). The impact these doctors and nurses have on these people is immeasurable and I am so glad to be able to be a part of it.