By Tracey Boyd
Although Deborah Hermes, BSN, RN, CCRN, is a pediatric nurse in Falls Church, Va., her “kids” span thousands of miles. The Inova Children’s Hospital pediatric ICU nurse also is a volunteer with Operation Smile, an international children’s medical charity that provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries to youth in countries with poor medical resources.
Hermes’ first trip as a nurse was in 2008, when she participated in a medical mission to Israel with her church. “I recognized how important it was to help in this way, but it was more of a clinic setting,” she said. “The people we saw had ailments like aches and coughs and we were able to help in the moment, but I wanted something that would last longer.”
She decided to look into volunteering for an organization that would allow her to have a more lasting impact. “I liked the idea of going somewhere, doing a surgery and changing someone’s life forever.”
Hermes turned to the Internet to find an organization that would fit her mission and her schedule. A search for overseas medical missions led her to Operation Smile and Mercy Ships. “Operation Smile was more appropriate for my schedule,” she said. “At that point, I was looking for short-term opportunities so that one was a great option.”
It wasn’t just the timing that drew Hermes to Operation Smile. She knew she had the right fit upon learning that Operation Smile trains local healthcare workers so they can better help their own communities, she said.
Hermes has participated in 12 missions abroad with Operation Smile, since her first trip to Guwahati, Assam, India, in 2009 — including nine more to India and two to Madagascar. “I went to Antananarivo, Madagascar, in April 2014 and I had a wonderful time with the team, so they invited me back for the next mission there,” she said.
The organization hadn’t been to that particular region, which is a bit rustic, in a while, and they needed strong volunteers who could handle unforeseen situations in a nontraditional surgical setting, she said. The team performed 119 surgeries while there, and Hermes was allowed to stay behind after the mission was complete. “On each mission, they keep a smaller team behind to do postop checks and I was lucky enough to be able to do that.”
Although the organization limits missions to two per year for volunteers, Hermes lived in India for about nine months in 2011 while volunteering for Operation Smile and was able to complete four missions. “I took a sabbatical from my job to go help bring the local nurses up to the clinical competencies of Operation Smile,” she said.
While living in India, Hermes worked at the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre, or as she lovingly calls it, GC4. At the center, a mother brought in an infant with cleft lip and cleft palate to its nutrition program. “This little girl was incredibly malnourished,” said Hermes. “She was about 6 months old and she weighed maybe 4 kilograms.”
The baby was not eating properly at home, Hermes said, and she had sucked on her hands so much that her fingernails were coming off. Hermes and the staff showed the mom how to mash up a banana, mix it with some milk and feed the baby using a tongue depressor.
“I remember once I was feeding her and she was crying this pitiful little cry,” Hermes said. “She got a hold of some of the banana and her hands were on my hands and our eyes locked and she just looked at me with this look of thanks. And she stopped crying. After that she had the best sleep she’d had in days.”
She sent the mother and baby home with nutritional supplements and requested they come back in a month. When they returned 30 days later, the baby’s transformation was indeed life changing.
“It was so much fun to see her with little fat deposits in her cheeks and little rolls in her thighs because she was actually eating so well,” Hermes said. “That just meant the world to me because the mom was in such a tough situation, mourning the previous loss of another child — probably due to malnutrition — who was also cleft lip and cleft palate, thinking that she may lose this one as well. It warms my heart that I was able to help her, that I could change that baby’s life with a banana.”
Hermes plans to do a lot more volunteering with Operation Smile, noting there’s a place she really wants to visit. “My dream mission would be to [travel to] Jordan because I love the history of the region and I’m very interested in the culture,” she said. “But I’ll go anywhere there’s a need.”
As for other nurses who are interested in assisting in the efforts of groups like Operation Smile but who may be a bit hesitant about it, Hermes had this advice. “It does take you out of your realm of comfort but if you think you can help, bite the bullet, fill out your passport application and take a trip,” she said. “Remember, also, that it not only takes volunteers. It takes people to support volunteers. If you’re not able to go, offer to cover someone’s shift or help with the fees to make it possible for them to go.”
Tracey Boyd is a regional reporter.