By Rtn Myrna Valle
They are called Helping Children Smile, Inc., and their logo has the words “Australian volunteers providing Filipino children brighter futures” in it, arranged to form a smile. Their mission? To help children smile. Aptly, their mission’s name is “Balik Ngiti”, or to bring the smile back. They are a group of dedicated doctors, nurses and civilians working together to stage an annual medical mission to the Philippines that provides free cleft lip and/or palate operations for children (and sometimes adults as well).
For the past 19 years, Helping Children Smile, Inc. or HCSI has been sending a team of doctors and nurses to different parts of the Philippines, like Cagayan, Pangasinan, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, Laguna, Quezon, and Bicol. How they do this difficult, expensive and complex mission is quite remarkable.
It starts with the members. The core group of HCSI are the nurses from Queensland, who does all the ground work. They raise funds, process all necessary documents, do all the travel arrangements, determine and acquire all necessary equipment and supplies, and fill in the needed manpower for each and every mission. The doctors come in only during the mission itself wherein they render their services for free. What is wonderful about this group is that they heavily rely on each other, and are just as heavily appreciative of each other’s contribution to their cause.
Since the first order of business is to raise funds, this is obviously the one function that takes up the most time to do; actually, it is a year-long activity for HCSI. The main source of funds is their Charity Shop located in Nambour, Queensland. Volunteers man the shop selling second-hand clothes and accessories, curio items, jewelries and toys, and these stuff come from generous donors who would like to unload some of their excess items. As HCSI president RN Kate gushed, “the goods just keep on coming”!
Apart from the prolific Charity Shop, the good nurses also hold periodic fund-raising events like “Sausage Sizzle” wherein they sell grilled sausages and drinks, have some games and other activities. Trivia Nights are organized, selling tickets for seats to a fun night of trivia questions and answers, with a chance to win prizes.
In addition, HCSI partnered with another NGO called IPEX, who organizes trade fairs selling stuff like handbags and clothes. HCSI members provide manpower for IPEX, who in turn, shares the profits with HCSI at the end of the year. They also have membership fees and donations from both members and non-members, all of which are tax-deductible.
The raised funds generated by the year-long fundraising activities go to mission expenses like air fare and baggage, hotel accommodation other incidentals like food, transport, communication, and office supplies. During their latest mission in Sta. Rosa Laguna, for instance, HCSI spent AU$ 18,000 for their airfare and about AU$ 15,000 for excess luggage. Those plus hotel accommodations, food and other incidentals amount to more than AU$ 60,000 or more than 2 million pesos.
Medical equipment, supplies and medicine needed for the medical procedures to be performed are solicited from sponsor pharmaceutical companies like Johnson and Johnson, Covidien, Monash Health, Abbvie, and Multigate.
The team targets the mission schedule to fall within the dry season; and as their chosen date nears, HCSI coordinators get busy working on the long and winding road towards getting all the logistics and requirements done. RN Erin, the coordinator of the group and Vice-President of HCSI, laments that this step is their most challenging one. Their mission require them to bring in medicines to the Philippines and also perform medical procedures, and so they have to produce the respective certificates of the team members, have them authenticated by the Philippine Embassy in Australia and submit the documents through a string of Philippine government offices, namely the Department of Health (DOH), Philippine Regulatory Commission (PRC), Philippine Medical Association (PMA) and Philippines Nurses Association (PNA). The tedious process undergoes unexpected changes each year i.e. a new requirement or rule, thereby causing delays or further paperwork for the team. Having gone through the process every year for the past 18 years, the team is hopeful that a solution could be adapted by the DOH and other related agencies to make this process less complicated and time-consuming.
Simultaneously, the team identifies an area where they will stage their mission; and once identified, they get in touch with a Rotary Club from that area. Through the years, HCSI has forged ties with different clubs, who serve as their hosts during their stay. The Rotary club coordinates with the government hospital within their district and arranges for the team’s hotel booking, transport requirements, and other necessities. Club members take turns to act as team chaperone for every day that the team is doing their mission, which usually lasts for two weeks.
The concerned Rotary Club also conducts an information campaign about Balik Ngiti several months before the team’s arrival, the objective being to gather potential patients for the cleft lip/palate operations. Other Rotary Clubs are also alerted in case they know of children with the condition, so as they could send the patients to the venue of the Balik Ngiti mission.
Balik Ngiti Mission starts immediately after the team arrives. Moving with clock-like precision, the team breaks up into groups to set up the operating room, the screening area and the consultation area. Nurses screen the patients by getting their vitals such as weight, temperature, pulse rate and blood count. Other information like family history, allergies (in particular of anesthetics) and illnesses are also obtained.
Once screened, the patient proceeds to the surgeons who assess the patient’s condition. Cleft lip cases, albeit not an easy procedure are less complicated and heals faster than cleft palate cases. Ideally, the age range of a cleft lip patient is from 6 months to 7 years, while a cleft palate patient is from 1 to 7 years old. However, in some cases patients over the age of 7 or even adults could be considered. Accepted cases are then further interviewed by the anesthetists, who also gives detailed instructions to the patient and his/her guardian in connection to the operation.
The following days are dedicated to the operations, which could take from one hour to as long as four hours, depending on the type of operation and the severity of the condition of the patient. If there is still room for more patients, the team may still see other patients for screening.
The patients are asked to come back to the hospital for a check-up, at least two days after their operations. The surgeons will look at each patient for progress and problems, if any. They are photographed individually and as a group for documentation, signaling the end of the mission.
But it is not the end, because our valiant nurses and doctors are already preparing for the next mission. Which leads to the question: why do they do this? Why do they subject themselves to the sacrifice, the hard work, time away from families and career, and even red tape?
Anesthetist Dr. Kim explains: “we are not politicians. We cannot change the world, but we can do this — use our skills to help children with cleft lip and palate conditions. Clefts are socially debilitating, and it is not fair that these children’s futures suffer because of it.” Dr. Damien, another Anesthetist, added that doing a mission for clefts is how they can do the most help to a larger number of recipients. The operation is relatively simpler and uses a finite number of equipment. Patients also recover within a few days.
But if the team could pin it down on one thing, it is the smiles that they bring to these children and their families. Unanimously, they agree that the smiles “make us want to keep coming back”.