Caroline Doherty, a Chatham resident and member of the Oak Knoll Class of 2013, recently traveled to Guatemala on an international medical mission through Operation Smile.
Operation Smile is a charitable organization that provides free reconstructive surgeries to children with cleft palates and cleft lips in more than 50 countries. Since Oak Knoll first became involved with Operation Smile, alumnae and students have traveled to Ethiopia, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, the Philippines, India, and China.
Caroline was inspired to go on a mission not only by her Oak Knoll classmates but by her older brother Sean who went on a mission to India when he was a student at Delbarton.
"After he introduced me to the organization I knew that I wanted to get involved so I joined the Operation Smile club at school," Caroline said. "Once I learned more about the organization and saw pictures of children with cleft lips and palettes along with other students' mission videos, I knew that I wanted to go on a mission of my own. I wanted to have the opportunity to travel to a third world country and change people's lives."
While Caroline has been exposed to young children before tutoring both local students and those less fortunate, she said traveling to another country, meeting children there, and seeing how they live was an eye-opening experience.
In the United States, cleft lifts and palettes are not very common because they are fixed as soon as a baby is born, but in Guatemala Caroline said she saw children as old as 14 having surgery. Some of the patients traveled 10 hours or more for their surgeries.
"It is really sad because the children are outcasts for having such facial deformities," Caroline said.
While every trip differs slightly, students generally contribute to the mission by delivering presentations to patients and their families on dental hygiene, burn care and prevention, nutrition, and oral rehydration therapy. They also keep families company while they are waiting to undergo the screening process and are there to comfort the patients in recovery.
"Before the mission I heard many things from other students about their missions but no pictures or words can even describe what the experience is like," Caroline said. "I loved seeing how happy the parents and kids would get about their new smiles. I would walk into a room where a child would be crying in pain from the surgery, but as soon as I pulled out a mirror and showed them what they looked like, their faces just lit up with happiness."
Caroline said she would encourage her classmates to consider going on a mission of their own.
"It is just so heartwarming to see how happy the families and children are after receiving their surgeries because you know that you have just changed their lives," she said.