Something to Grin About

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Kathleen Harris Nu’98, with a young patient awaiting a cleft palate repair.

Kathleen Harris Nu’98 spent the 25th anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam helping to give smiles to children born long after the war in that country. 
    In April she took two weeks off from her job as a nurse in the anesthesiology and critical-care medicine department at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to travel to Da Nang, in central Vietnam, with a team organized by the medical-relief organization Operation Smile. Over five days at a local hospital, the 35 plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses in her group performed free corrective surgeries on 147 children born with cleft lips and palates, as well as emergency skin grafts on a child who had been burned by acid. Accompanying Harris from CHOP were Dr. Romulo Cuy, clinical instructor and anesthesiologist, and Melinda Brown, a nurse anesthetist.
    “I had always wanted to do a volunteer mission,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience. From the minute we hit Los Angeles (and joined the rest of the group), we were one large family.”
    By the time they arrived in Da Nang, about an hour by plane from Saigon, the children and their families had been waiting there for several days, responding to a mass posting about the project. Cleft lips and palates are usually corrected soon after infants are born in the United States. In developing countries such as Vietnam, however, there aren’t enough surgeons or funds to do this.
    During the first three days, the team screened about 250 patients, selecting those whom they felt would benefit the most from surgery, based on criteria set by the organization. Some families came from the mountains five hours away and remained in the city even though their children were not scheduled for surgery in the hopes that they would eventually get treated. “That was sad,” Harris says. “We just weren’t there long enough.” 
    The volunteers worked with surgeons from Saigon as well as the hospital’s own nursing staff, which kept one English-speaking nurse on duty at all times. Harris found the hospital to be very clean, but lacking much of the basic medical equipment available in the United States. They made do with the limitations, fashioning coat hangers, for example, into IV-bag holders. In the post-operation unit where Harris worked, patients slept two to a bed. 
    Before they left, Operation Smile supplied each child with a pack of supplies, including a mirror. “To see the kids take out the mirror and look at themselves, they just grinned from cheek to cheek.”

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