Clinica El Carmen's hallways bustle on a Sunday. Mothers clutch their children; Bolivian infants are swaddled in aguayos. Fathers share smiles strained with worry, and boys bounce their restless feet on the warm white tiles. Nurses announce numbers in Spanish, "veintitres." There aren't enough chairs for everyone. Some families stand in corners; a girl sleeps wrapped in a blanket on the floor. Despite the muggy heat and capacity crowds, one can't help but feel an air of hope and opportunity.
Many have traveled great distances to be here. Jhiner, an eight-year-old boy, and his mother, Rosmari, embarked on a three-day journey from South Potosi, where Bolivia extends to Chile's border. Switching buses four times to get here did not deter Jhiner. "There was no thinking twice." Jhiner saw news of AdventHealth Sharing Smiles' visit to Cochabamba on television and insisted he attend.
The Sharing Smiles team has flown from AdventHealth in Orlando, Florida carrying suitcases packed to the brim with medical supplies. Elite surgeons, anesthesiologists, doctors and nurses have volunteered their time and skills to perform 21 cleft palate/cleft lip surgeries that will forever transform the smiles of local Bolivian children.
Cochabamba's Rotary volunteers are here, too. In bright blue vests with the yellow rotary emblem stitched on their left breast, each volunteer stands ready to assist. Pamela, a native of Cochabamba, assures each family they will be evaluated and potentially scheduled for surgery this week. At last count, 63 potential patients have been screened. "None will be turned away, but we never make promises we can't keep," Pamela tells them. After the doctors and nurses evaluate each patient, translators relay messages of what can and cannot be done.
Some families will not be scheduled for surgery this week for several reasons: some children are too small or too sick. Even still, hope prevails. This is Sharing Smiles' first visit to Cochabamba, and there is momentum to establish a constant presence.
Michelle Gross, Sharing Smiles' Program Officer, insists, "This is not just a before and after picture." She explains long term goals that include speech therapy, orthodontics, nutritional aid, and even psychological support. Too often, children with cleft palates/cleft lips are bullied. Unspoken judgments about appearance often affect fathers of these children most; they carry the weight of guilt and shame because of their child's appearance.
Pedro, the father of seven-year-old Andres, glows with relief. He and his son traveled from the countryside of Arque, where most speak the indigenous language of Quechua. They've waited years for this opportunity. Pedro calls his wife back at home with the four other children and weeps with joy as he reassures her that their son is recovering well after his successful surgery. The wrinkles on his brow seem to relax as he holds Andres' hand.
Sandra, a nurse from AdventHealth, holds Laia, an infant from Cochabamba, as if she were her own newborn. Sandra, who flew overnight and chose to stay at the hospital rather than her hotel, caresses and cuddles Laia after her successful surgery. Laia's parents beam as they gaze upon their daughter's lips. Her mother explains, "When we found out our child would have a cleft lip, we began looking for help. We did not have money, so we did not know where to go."
Sharing Smiles had already established year-round clinics in several Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico and Peru. Proudly, the organization adds Cochabamba, Bolivia, the land of eternal spring, la ciudad de la primavera eternal, to its list of clinic locations. Here, an understanding of life's purpose prevails: sharing healthy smiles with family and friends is of utmost importance.
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