A Different Reason To Smile

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Operation Smile repairs kids born with cleft lip or cleft palate as well as other facial deformities. Photo: Bielmann/SPL

We pair up in groups of two to find several kids who we bond with to follow through the entire process. From screening to surgery, we will be a friendly, familiar face by their side. I meet a little girl named Angie. She and her mother have traveled here eight hours by bus in hopes of getting treatment. Angie has a cleft lip and palate, which means she will need a double surgery. She has a twin sister back home. The thought that at the end of these five days her sister will be able to look at her face and for the first time see a mirror looking back at her is enough to moisten my eyeballs. I feel like I already have a connection with Angie, and I need to join her on her journey.

Torrey shows some of the most selfless, wholehearted, loving energy I have ever seen someone share with a child. Every time I look around, Torrey and Matt have a group of kids playing and blowing bubbles with the biggest of smiles on all of their faces. It is hard to decipher who is having more fun: the kids or Torrey and Matt. Twelve hours of sharing positive energy with the kids makes us want to share our experience with as many people as possible. Back at the hotel, our social media updates explode with one of the most rewarding days of our lives. We instantly want everyone to know what an amazing cause this is and how many lives are being changed. After one day, the uncertainty of our purpose on this trip is a mere thought of the past. The fact that we are here on a surf trip is now more foreign of a thought than our previous wonder of our exact purpose for being here.

We have a very precise schedule laid out—with only four surf days on our agenda. On this trip the surfing is secondary—a very foreign concept to us considering we’re used to traveling based around when and where the surf is going to be best. When we get the chance, we scour the coast with our guide Tamile, who leads us to a variety of reef and cobblestone peaks. We’re presented with decent conditions, but it’s not exactly what we’d look for on a normal surf trip.

Regardless, these mediocre waves have us psyching because this is the first “surf trip” that isn’t about us or even the surf, for that matter. In the water, our goal is simple: perform well enough to nail magazine-worthy images that will allow us to create a story out of this trip—because getting this story published might actually help gain awareness and save lives. Never has surfing had more meaning.

As we head to the hospital for surgery day, we are all a bit weary, but we have one common goal: bring smiles to these precious little faces, and help make them comfortable on a day that will forever change their lives. The anxiety level in the hospital is palpable. Mothers are handing their infants to a doctor for the first time and watching as they disappear behind heavy blue doors. Robyn walks up and tells us it’s time—time to go into the operating room with the kids we have been following through the whole process. Dressed in green scrubs, each of us sits down individually to interview the mothers of the kids we are about to take to surgery. Tears of happiness overwhelm each one as the realization that their child is finally getting the treatment they have always needed.

Individually, we all have life-changing moments as we escort our crying children to the surgery bed. Torrey and Matt go first and return from the OR with a new outlook on life. “That was more rewarding than any wave I will ever catch,” Matt tells me as I prepare to head inside and witness the process for myself.

I walk in and find a sedated Angie lying on the operating table. Up to this point I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to handle watching her surgery. But intrigue and disbelief take over, and I can’t help but watch this skilled surgeon change her life. It’s overwhelming—and easily the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. When the sedation fades, and Angie’s able to reopen her eyes, she looks up at her relieved mother and for the first time ever. She smiles.

For more information about Operation Smile, please visit operationsmile.org. A small donation will help save a child’s life.—Alek Parker

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