Never short of a smile

By Heather Snowdon

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to have Life Ready Physio put me in touch with the Rafiki Surgical Missions team. This team of plastic surgeons, nurses and anaesthetists travel twice each year to Mwanza, Tanzania, to perform incredible surgery on children and adults suffering with burns contractures and cleft lips and/or palates.
They take a physiotherapist with the team to assist with the general running of the day-to-day theatre work, as well as to create plaster casts and thermoplastic splints post burns release, and to start patients on their rehabilitation. Thankfully, there is always the help of a translator near by – there were only so many Swahili words I could remember and my charades game is not of a high standard!

For this mission we left in November 2015 for two weeks of hard work (although with the laughing and camaraderie you wouldn’t call it your typical work place!) During our time in Mwanza we consulted with 132 patients and performed 69 surgeries. Many of the patients who presented for assessment were turned away as they were too young or underweight. These people will be contacted and re-assessed in April 2016 on the next mission. Once they are at a safe age and weight for anaesthetic medicine they will become a priority.

The locals were the most welcoming and friendly people you could hope to meet. Despite the language barrier they were never short of a smile. It’s amazing how you can start to play a game with children and build a relationship without a word of communication being understood by either party! Speaking of children, I have never come across more brave and lively kids. After very painful burns release surgery our difficulty was keeping these kids still! They are full of energy and it was so refreshing to see them playing with each other and enjoying being outside, rather than glued to an electronic device.
The theatre staff were incredibly professional, yet incredibly personable. They did a fantastic job and were genuinely changing peoples lives. Our team organiser, Taka Wild, travels to each mission and devotes hours of her time every week organising the upcoming trips and fundraising. She is a truly amazing and dedicated woman, as are the surgeons who have all been on several missions. How lucky we are to be able to do our jobs and influence someone’s life so positively!

Seeing the immediate transformation of a cleft lip surgery was inspirational. And seeing how a once fused, flexed, contracted arm could become an extended and useable arm again (with lots of physio exercises) made the long hours all worth it. These children looked at the doctors like the heroes they are. They all came to our clinic day dressed in their Sunday best, sat patiently for hours and stared in amazement as these tall people with lights on their heads talked a foreign language in front of them and took photos. I can only begin to imagine how overwhelming this must have been for them. Showing a young adult her face in a mirror after the removal of a few lipomas from her eyelid was one of many very touching moments.
We had a day off to recover mid way through the trip where we were taken three hours away to the Geita mine site. The Geita mine work closely with the Rafiki Surgical Missions to transport and feed the patients and provide a lot of funding. It was a great opportunity to see what they do, and to see the countryside. We were also able to stop in and see a previous patient who had had a cleft lip repair living in her community. She had the most beautiful smile and instantly remembered the surgeons who had taken such care of her. On this outing I also experienced the heaviest rain storm I have ever seen, after being sunburnt earlier that same day. I guess Toto was right – singing about those rains in Africa!

All in all the experience was incredibly humbling and genuinely eye opening.  I met some very special people and had many memorable moments, this experience was invaluable and I would love to go back again, and encourage anyone who has a similar opportunity presented to them to absolutely jump on it!
Read more about the wonderful team at Rafiki Surgical Missions and how you can help change the lives of many young children and adults living with cleft palates and facial contractures here.